Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is There More to Life than This? (Exodus 3:1-15)

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Moses said, “I’m here.”

Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.


Today we are beginning a summer sermon series, a three-week series called, “Reaching for the Promise.”  For this series, we’re going old school – Old Testament, Hebrew scriptures, if you want to be precise – as we retrace the Exodus story, starting with slavery in Egypt, to wandering in the wilderness, to looking into the promised land.  It’s an opportunity to be reminded that God is always calling us into a preferred future, that there is some vision, some hope, some promise out there from God, one toward which we are called to stretch and grow in order to reach.


The Exodus is the central story of God’s deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures.  To this day, when our Jewish friends celebrate Passover, they are remembering and commemorating God’s deliverance of them as a people – from slavery to freedom.


And the story begins with Moses.  Moses, the Hebrew child left in a basket in the river, picked up by the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a prince in the palace.  When he killed an Egyptian slave-driver who was particularly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, he fears being discovered and punished, so he flees to Midian, where he marries and takes care of his father-in-law’s sheep.


He led the flock out to the edge of the wilderness, somewhere out beyond Stokesdale, probably, somewhere, well, we don’t know exactly where it was, but it was someplace Moses knew quite well.  But there, he saw a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed, and as he approached, God called out from the bush, “Moses!  Moses!”  And when Moses responded, God told him not to come any closer until he removed his sandals, for the ground on which he was standing was holy ground.


You ever stood on holy ground?  Not sacred ground, but holy ground.  What’s the difference?  Simply put, we define what’s sacred.  God defines what’s holy.  I spend a lot of time in and out of churches, and I can tell pretty quickly if it’s a sacred place or a holy one.  Sacred places have lots of rules that protect the interests of those who are already there but can be inhospitable toward newcomers, often a lot of signs that say, “Don’t:” Don’t turn around here, don’t park there, don’t sit there, don’t run, don’t open, don’t smile, don’t have any fun – be so self-conscious about every little thing you do there’s no possible way you can really connect with God here.  We don’t need any more sacred places in the world; we already have too many!  What we do need, however, are more holy places, places where the presence of God is so palpable there is no mistaking where we are.


When God beckons us toward the holy, maybe we take off our shoes as a sign of respect, maybe as a way to connect with God all the way down to our toes.  Last week at Annual Conference, at the ordination service on Saturday night, one of our friends went across stage and knelt in front of the bishop in order for him to lay hands on her and ordain her, and she was barefoot, because she was on holy ground.  I have friends who kick their shoes off before they preach, a reminder that when they step behind the pulpit they are standing on holy ground.


As Moses talks with God in the burning bush, he asks two foundational questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”  They are two questions we all ask when we come into the holy presence of God.


Though Moses questions what qualifies him for a conversation with and calling from God, the whole thing has to do with something of Moses’ heart.  Remember, Moses killed an Egyptian slave-driver because he couldn’t stand to see him brutally oppressing the Hebrew slaves.  He saw injustice and oppression, and something burned within him as if to say, “There must be more to life than this, because this just isn’t right.”  And God felt the same way.  God saw within Moses something that reflected God’s heart on the matter.


Moses had thought and prayed a lot about the atrocities he had seen.  He was deeply concerned about them.  And so, when God said, “I have seen the oppression of my people, and I have heard their cries,” Moses was thinking, “Finally!  God is going to do something!” but then God says, “Now get going,” and Moses realizes God’s not in this thing alone; Moses is part of the plan.


You’ve got to be careful what you pray for.  God just might answer.  God hears, but then God calls, God sends.  Moses tries to find any plausible excuse as to why God must be speaking to someone else – someone without his past, someone with more time, someone with more skill.  Things are finally going well in his life – he’s just made a move, new wife, new job – he’s comfortable, and now God wants him to leave all that?


Who is Moses?  That’s what he was asking.  Simply put: Moses is the one God called.  No other requirement is needed.  And when God calls, the things that break God’s heart will also break yours, and that holy discontent that burns inside you is nothing other than God’s call to do something on behalf of those who suffer injustice and oppression, because God is the ultimate liberator; it’s who God is.


We tend to think that God is at work “out there” somewhere – God is speaking and doing things somewhere strange and exotic, far away, among people whose names we cannot pronounce.


People have made pilgrimages to such places – to visit shrines and kneel before altars in places where God has shown up, and I have been among those pilgrims, from time to time.  In a few weeks, I will take several of you to England to visit some of Methodism’s holy sites as we re-introduce ourselves to John and Charles Wesley and walk upon their holy ground.  In February, I will take some of you to Israel as we walk in the places where Jesus walked, and if you want to go, let me know!  I have touched the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born, placed my hand in the notch in the rock where the cross was placed, and it was truly holy ground.


Like many of you, I have been on mission trips to do God’s work in far away places, arrogantly  thinking I was taking God somewhere only to discover that God was already alive and well and hard at work long before this typically ego-centric American showed up on the scene, and indeed, the faith of the people there was far more robust than my own, and I know I walked upon holy ground there, too.


I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.  I will continue to take spiritual pilgrimage and lead others on them my entire life, as we seek out holy ground, but I can never let such experiences blind me to the reality that God is not only “there;” God is also “here.”


We simply miss it.  Full calendars, busy lives, boredom, familiarity, our own comfort – all reasons we miss God at work right under our noses, walking past holy ground and turning aside from burning bushes, failing to hear God speak our names or dream, for even a moment, that God is doing anything out of the ordinary here or through us.


Greg Jones tells a story from his days as a pastor of dropping by the home of a family who had visited his church that morning.  He rang the bell, and their young son came to the open screen door, looked at Greg for a minute, and turned back into the house, yelling, “Mom!  God’s here!”


Would it be that we could just as assuredly say, “God’s here.”  God shows up in the places God is expected.  Church, it’s time for us to have the same expectation about God showing up “here,” and realize that God is already calling our names, that every bush around us is already burning with the invitation to respond and be about God’s mission, to leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into something new and unfamiliar, not for our sake but for God’s, not because we want to but because God wants us to, because all around us are people who are oppressed and bound by forces they cannot control, forces that control them, people who are alienated and isolated and alone and wondering if anyone is even listening, if anyone even cares, and it turns out that yes, God has heard their cries, and has called and sent us to do something about it. What if we are the answer to someone else’s prayer?  What if we are following God so closely that when people see us coming they turn back into the house and yell, “God’s here!”?


You don’t have to go far to get to work in God’s name.  You can, and from time to time, you should.  But, you don’t have to go across the world to love God and love your neighbor.  Usually, you can just go across the street.  God hears their cries too, you know, and the bush that’s burning might very well be in their backyard or yours.  You may be closer to holy ground than you’d ever realized.


You don’t have to go far away to find those who are being crushed and oppressed, whose spirits are bent and breaking, who are wondering, “Is there more to life that this?” and if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that you are the one God is calling to answer, “Yes, yes there is more to life than this.  There is so much more to life than this!  You have been heard, you are loved, you matter – to God and to me – now, how about we go and follow God, together?”


Moses encountered God as he was tending the flock of his father-in-law – something he had done countless times.  He knew these rocks and hills, every streambed, the lay of the land.  The bush was likely one he has passed hundreds or thousands of times without giving it a second thought – it was a bush like any other in the landscape.  Not a sacred bush, not a magic bush – just a regular, ordinary, bush.


Yet how like God to encounter us in something we see every day as we go about work we always do in a place we already know.  How like God to call us to the holy through something ordinary.  How like God to use ordinary people for holy work.


Is there more to life than the ordinary?  More than oppression and isolation and loneliness?  More than working to make a living, more than working for the weekend, more than what we see and know?  Absolutely, when God shows up.


Let’s expect God to show up, here and now, in the familiar and what is close at hand – and let’s just see if God meets our expectation.  Let’s expect God to show up.


When we put the expectation on God to show up for us, don’t be surprised if God asks us to show up for God.  We hear our name called, and then we are sent.  Better to be off about God’s business than stuck in place.  If you stand on holy ground for too long, your feet might get burned, so get moving.  There’s work to do.  God’s people are crying out.


Who is God?  Who are we?  Is there more to life than this?


We’ll never really know, until we go.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Introductions (Acts 17:22-31)

Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.  As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’  What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.  God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth.  He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.  Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else.  From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.  God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.  As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought.  God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives.  This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed.  God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

This week, over 3000 United Methodists from the western half of the state will gather at Lake Junaluska for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  This yearly gathering is part worship, part business, part family reunion.

Annual Conference concludes each year with the fixing of appointments – the official sending of pastors to some 1100 churches across the conference for another year of ministry.  I view this time as a yearly renewal of my commitment to go where I am sent, to represent God and serve God’s people, and lead God’s people in sharing God’s life-giving love and grace with the world around us as the Holy Spirit enables us.

This realization is, for me, anyway, humbling – wondering why in the world God would count on me, and empowering – for whatever reason, God is counting on me.  Not just the pastors, but all of us.  God is counting on me.

It’s a time to re-up.  This year, there will be a “2” next to my name in the appointment book, indicating it’s about to be my 2nd year appointed as the lead pastor here at Morehead.  I have already told our bishop and district superintendent to forget my name and leave me alone! We love it here.  Next year I want to see a “3” next to my name, and then a “4,” and then we’ll see how high it can go.

It’s weird to think that a year ago, I didn’t know you.  You didn’t know me.  We were waiting to be introduced.  I’ve often thought about that process you go through to get to know someone – how you can go from complete strangers to having a deeply-meaningful relationship with someone.

I am particularly grateful for those who facilitate introductions.  Even introducing someone to someone else doesn’t form an instant relationship between them – they still have to do a lot of the work themselves to make that happen – but an introduction is often a spark, the initial “oomph” that gets a relationship started.

When you think about it, we make introductions all the time.  We introduce mutual friends if we think they might hit it off.  We set people up on blind dates.  We tell people about restaurants we enjoy, where to get a good haircut, oil change, or frozen yogurt.  We share recipes, garden tips, articles, you name it, if we love it, we share it with great enthusiasm!

Do we have the same excitement for sharing our faith and introducing people to Jesus?

We call this “evangelism.”  Evangelism is a churchy word we use to describe introducing people to Jesus and talking about our faith.  Evangelism has gotten a little bit of a bad rap lately; perhaps because the very word conjures up images of TV evangelists with big hair and perfect smiles cajoling money out of a vulnerable TV audience, or angry people with hateful signs hurling slurs and insults at passers-by – maybe not the best picture for sharing God’s love!

Make no mistake – we are called to share our faith, we are called to be about sharing God’s love and grace in the world, and we are called to be bold in it – but, and this is critical – we are not called to be jerks about it.  Being a Christian doesn’t make us better than other people, and sharing our faith does not give us a license to be obnoxious or condescending. 

Friends, we cannot allow these to be the voices that speak for us, nor can we allow them to keep us from speaking.  Even though these voices represent the smallest sliver of the Christian community, they are perhaps the loudest and most persistent voices, and unless we also speak up, when the world hears the words “Christian,” “Jesus,” “Bible,” “faith,” or “church,” this is the picture they’ll have.

Now, I know, some people are going, “Talk about my faith?  Tell people about Jesus?  What are we paying the pastor for?”  You pay me to remind you to introduce people to Jesus.  Remember what we said earlier – God is counting on me.

The Apostle Paul in today’s reading from the 17th chapter of Acts, gives us a good pattern to follow for sharing our faith in a non-Christian world.  He has been criss-crossing the Mediterranean, preaching and setting up churches.  He has been met with resistance and hostility in each place.

He arrived in Athens for some down time waiting for his colleagues to meet him and figure out what they would do next.  There was no work on the agenda – no preaching, no teaching, no setting up churches, none of that – just a little R & R.  And yet we know that’s not what happened.

Paul was walking through the city, taking in all the cultural and historical treasures that make Athens the great city it is.

Everywhere he went, he saw altars and shrines to many gods.  The Greeks & Romans worshipped a variety of gods, but they were also deeply respectful of the gods worshiped in other places by other people.  Not wanting to leave anyone out, they even set up an altar to “an unknown god.”

Paul decides to share the Gospel with non-believers, and starts with a compliment – “Look at all these altars!  I can see that you are deeply religious!”  And so many altars – these people are definitely searching, definitely trying to connect with something beyond themselves!

We aren’t so different today than were people in Athens.  People are still longing for meaning and searching for significance.  So many altars where we bow – altars of wealth and power, materialism and nationalism, prominence and prestige, experience and esteem, friends and family, leisure pleasure – one altar after another, each built with the promise of enshrining our happiness, each one just as disappointing as the one before.

Before we know it, our lives have become more cluttered with altars to false gods than the streets of Athens.

Why do we do this?  Because God created us with a restlessness, a need deep inside us for a connection with God.  I think of it like the little shape ball I played with as a kid, trying to fit those yellow shapes into the various holes.  Now, imagine one of those holes is God-shaped.  You can try to cram all sorts of things in there, but only one thing can fill the God-shaped hole in each of us – God.  Anything else, we remain empty inside.

Paul knew that the people were searching.  So many altars?  So much devotion, even if misguided?  Yeah, they were looking for something.  Patiently, Paul says, “You’ve been searching.  You’ve been looking a long time” – what they’ve been looking for is the one, true God.

Paul’s presentation meets his hearers where they are.  They are intellectuals, and he presents the Gospel with quotes and allusions to their own poets and philosophers.  He builds bridges between their culture and his message, finds common ground, and says, “Let’s start here.”  He is not at odds with his hearers.  He’s not trying to fix them, correct them, tell them everything that’s wrong with their beliefs or way of seeing the world.  He’s not trying to prove anything about them or himself.

And though he uses reason and appeals to their intellect, he presents the Gospel not as an argument to be won or a puzzle to be solved or a set of prepositions with which to agree, but as an introduction to the living God, and an invitation to be in relationship with God.

He doesn’t say, “Let me help you know things about God.”  He says, “Let me help you know God.”  The God you’ve worshiped this whole time and didn’t even know it – would you like me to introduce you?  The God who created the world and everything in it, the God who created you and loves you more than you can imagine, the God whose image you bear, whose love and creativity are marked indelibly on you, the God and Father of us all, even though you’ve never confessed God’s name or realized that you were God’s child, has always loved you and knows your name, whose will has always been directed toward your good, the God who has been reaching toward you and calling your name even while you were completely ignorant of this God because that’s how much God loves you, the God in whom we literally live and move and have our very being, this very same God – would you like me to introduce you?

People cannot come to know God until someone introduces them.  Introducing people to God doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in theology or have a bunch of answers or arguments ready to go.  You simply need to be willing to share your experience of how God has been at work in your life.  If you have a story to tell, then God can use you.  It’s easy – it’s just your own story, and it’s powerful; you’ll watch God work through that in amazing ways, and before you know it, you’ll be introducing people to Jesus left and right.  As Paul showed us in Athens, we can invite people to get to know God in a way that is respectful and not pushy, but also has a holy boldness and passion for sharing God’s love and grace.

We talk about church as family.  A family of faith.  God’s family.  You may not have ever thought about it, but there’s a family business – bringing people (all people!) into relationship with God through Jesus.  The family business is growing the family.  Being part of the family means being part of the family business.

As a church, our job is clear.  It’s already been outlined.  We are part of God’s family, so our business is God’s business – introducing people to Jesus and making it possible for them to grow in God’s love.  What a great line of work we have, with no shortage of opportunity!  Just look around at all the people we have the opportunity to introduce to Jesus!

But it’s a family business – that means all the members of the family have a role, including you.  Though we have nice benches, do more than ride the bench here.  That’s not standing on the promises; that’s sitting on the premises!  Gather to worship, yes, but then depart to serve.  Come in to be fed, go out to feed others.  Come to get to know God better, go and out introduce Jesus to others.  Don’t just warm a pew; be part of God’s mission.

The beautiful thing in God’s mission of introducing people to Jesus is that there’s a job for everybody.  Maybe you can preach.  Maybe you can go somewhere to people in need, around the corner or around the world.  Maybe you can pray.  Maybe you can sing.  Maybe you can teach.  Maybe you can give.  Maybe you can cook, or set up tables, or greet people when they arrive or help them find a parking spot.  So many ways to serve, but each and every one of them supports our primary mission to introduce people to Jesus.

Friends, like the people of Athens, we can be easily distracted and pulled in so many directions that we quickly lose focus and get off track.  So many things vying for our attention, pulling us this way and that way.  Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.  Let’s stay focused on introducing people to Jesus.

I’d love it if church were a little more like Pinky and the Brain.  This favorite cartoon of my childhood features two animated lab rats – The Brain, a diabolical genius, and Pinky, his dim-witted but loyal sidekick.  At the beginning of every episode, Pinky says, “Gee Brain, What do you want to do tonight?”  “Same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!”

Such a driving, clear, undebatable statement of purpose.  Said with clarity and conviction, unequivocally naming their purpose and mission.

I would love for the Church to have the same singular focus, that if I were to say, “Gee Church, what do you want to do today?” you would instinctively answer, “Same thing we do every day, pastor: introduce people to Jesus.” 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

As band geeks in high school, every fall we played in the pep band for the football team.  The band sat in the section closest to the cheerleaders.  We had our own cheers custom-tailored to our rivals – some a bit bawdier than others that I won’t repeat here – although, as the worst team in our division, it’s funny that we were trash-talking anyone, and of course, much like your high school, we had several different spirit cheers.

I do remember several times, as the cheerleaders were getting ready to start a particular cheer and asking, “Hey band, are we on offense or defense?”  There were times when they didn’t know a tight end from an end zone, a touch down from a touch back, a fourth quarter from a fourth down, but what they lacked in information, they made up for with spirit.

Which would you rather have – the right information, or the right spirit?  Nothing wrong with good information, but when God wanted to start the church, God didn’t give us a set of answers; God gave us the Holy Spirit.  May we pray.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.

Have you ever had the awkward occurrence of receiving a gift from someone, and upon opening it, you have no idea what it is or what do you with it?  The giver is so excited for you to have it, and they ask, “Well, do you like it?”  And you say, “Like it?  Why, how could I not love having – one of these.”  You want to say, “Thank you; what IS it?”

Asking “What is it?” is a theme in gift-giving, especially when it comes to mysterious and perplexing gifts from God.  We celebrate Pentecost as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.  Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost, often emblazoned with representations of fire, wind, and a dove - all physical ways the Holy Spirit has appeared in the Scriptures.

Pentecost is a radically important day.  In terms of our salvation, Christians have focused on other days in the salvation story.  Perhaps they focus on Christmas, when Jesus was born, God-in-flesh, true God from true God, light from light eternal.  Yes, we weep at the cross on Good Friday.  Yes, we are all rightfully dazzled by the empty tomb at Easter, but the story is just getting started there.  Where the story really kicks in is today, when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given and received at Pentecost.

Unfortunately, most Christians don’t give the priority to this day that are received by Christmas and Easter.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand the Holy Spirit, or we do and we’re scared, or we don’t want to be labeled religious fanatics.  Perhaps it’s because Pentecost, always 50 days after Easter, always coincides with the end of school and the beginning of the summer travel season.  Maybe it’s because the world hasn’t figured out how to commercialize Pentecost the same way it has Easter and Christmas.  No new outfits to buy, no Pentecost baskets to fill with candy, no Pentecost tree to put up and decorate, no hours at the mall waiting in line to buy Pentecost gifts.

And that’s okay.  The only gift you need to be concerned with on Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Here’s what you need to know about the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is a gift.  The Holy Spirit is God’s active presence among us.  Everything we know, and think, and experience, and feel about God is made possible through the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, as gifts of God tend to be, is a surprising gift.  On that first Pentecost, the first followers of Jesus, about 120 of them, were gathered somewhere in Jerusalem.  It was a clandestine meeting – location unknown, no printed agenda, no list of attendees – not because they were trying to keep secrets, but because they were trying to keep from being killed.  The last fifty days since the empty tomb had been a roller coaster of emotions: encounters with the risen Jesus as he walked with them on their journey, and continually made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.  Ten days ago, Jesus blasted off into the clouds saying something about not leaving them alone, but as so often happens with Jesus, no one understood what he was talking about.

When Pentecost came, no one was thinking of the Holy Spirit.  A spirit of fear and timidity, a spirit of second-guessing and confusion about what to do next, perhaps a spirit of despair or agitation that things hadn’t worked out for them quite the way they had hoped.  Pentecost began with a gloomy gathering of frightened Jesus followers, and I guarantee you that starting the church was the last thing on their minds.

However, God had other plans.  Thank God that God always has other plans.  As they were all gathered in one place, God sent the Holy Spirit, blowing through the room as the sound of a mighty, rushing, violent wind, appearing as tongues of fire that appeared to rest on each one.  No small thing that God’s Spirit appears as wind and fire – two elements with a mind all their own, and when you put them together, you get wild fire.   The Holy Spirit does what it will without our permission or control.  Locked doors are blown open and cold hearts are strangely warmed when the life-giving Spirit of God blows through the place and what will happen next is anybody’s guess, but we know it will be big, and we know it will be from God.

In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the Biblical writers were saying that it was like God's breath, like a holy wind. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8).

The Holy Spirit isn’t a cool breeze.  It’s a hot wind.  It’s like those afternoons you go outside in late July or early August, and it’s already hot out, and you see the trees rustle at the edge of the yard and you think, “Oh good, a breeze,” and it hits you, and it’s anything but refreshing as you feel like you’re standing in a hair dryer – yes, the Holy Spirit is kind of like that.

The wind of the Holy Spirit has fire in it; it’s supposed to be hot!  Hot enough to burn off the other spirits that want our attention, that want to fill us and rule our lives – burning away the spirits of rationality, or pride, or selfishness or criticism or negativity.  The Holy Spirit whooshes into our lives and burns these things away like a holy fever, flushing them out of our system and igniting the things of God – letting those fill us, instead!

In another church, I had been preaching on the Holy Spirit one Sunday when a lady came out the door – a lifelong church member, and one of the grumpiest, most negative, critical people you could imagine – and she sneered on her way out, “I don’t believe in all that Holy Spirit business” and I was thinking, “Lady, I’m glad you told me, because, wow, I never would have guessed that on my own!”

You can’t harbor a negative spirit and the Holy Spirit at the same time.  Being filled with one evicts the other.  You see, the Holy Spirit is a unifying spirit.  The Scripture says that “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) when the Spirit came.  “One place” is not only a common location, but a unity of heart and mind.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve gathered in one worship service today instead of two – our way of being “together in one place.”

The Holy Spirit unites us, forms us into a family of faith, people from different backgrounds, with different preferences and perspectives and opinions.  Unity is not the same thing as uniformity; unity doesn’t mean that we all think and act exactly alike.  And yet, the Holy Spirit helps us realize that what unites us is infinitely greater than whatever might divide us.

Friends, we’re all on the same team.  We are bonded together in a unity of heart and purpose.

John Wesley said, “Though we may not all think alike, may we not love alike?”  And that’s hard to do.  Impossible for us to do on our own, actually.  But thankfully, the Holy Spirit is not only a unifying spirit; the Holy Spirit is an empowering spirit.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, past their fear, and into the street, proclaiming the good news of what God was doing with such power and clarity that tourists from around the world each heard the Gospel proclaimed in their native language.

They had started the day in fear and doubt, but then, the Holy Spirit got loose, whooshing through and anointing people left and right, and before the day is over, the fledging disciples will have started the church and with such power that it grew from 120 to 3000 members in one day.  Some sneered and accused the disciples of being filled with spirits rather than The Spirit; there will always be those who are resistant to the subtle and not-so-subtle incursions of God among us.

If we’re not careful, it’s easy for us to end up there, as well.  As the day of Pentecost began, those early followers of Jesus were fearful, suspicious, powerless, and pitiful.  The Holy Spirit changed all that.  The Holy Spirit gave them power and boldness to be about God’s work in the world.  When they received the Holy Spirit, they became the Church.  To this day, anywhere the Holy Spirit is poured out and joyfully received, there God’s Church is found.

How about us?  How about you?  Do you want to receive the Holy Spirit in the same way?  I hope so, but know what you’re praying for.  Remember, the Holy Spirit comes not as a cool breeze, but as a hot wind – fanning the flame within us, burning away our plans and igniting something that is both bigger and godlier.  Hot enough to make us uncomfortable with some holy discontent, strong enough to blow us out of our comfort zones, because God still has work to do, and is inviting us to complete it.

Pentecost witnesses to the reality that the Holy Spirit can be poured out on anybody – old and young, male and female, simple and sophisticated, saint and sinner, insider and outsider, like us and unlike us – doesn’t matter.  The Holy Spirit is indiscriminately poured out, and all who receive it dream dreams and see visions, of what can be and what will be as God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are giving up control and predictability, but we are opening up to God sized-dreams and visions being accomplished through us.  I’ll run that risk any day.

Tom Long tells the story of teaching 3 young girls in a small church he pastored.  He said, “Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world!”

He says two of the girls took that all rather calmly, but the other’s eyes turned as big as saucers.  When she could finally speak, she said, “Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.”

He said, “The beautiful thing about that is not that she misunderstood.  The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened in our church, that God’s Spirit could have come even to our little congregation and given us a word to speak that the world desperately needs to hear.”

The Gospel can be just a story about what God did through some people we don’t know in a distant land a long time ago.  But it can be more than that, too.  For those who are full of the Holy Spirit, the story isn’t finished yet.  The next chapter is about what God will do through us.  Faithfulness isn’t about knowing exactly where the wind will blow.  Faithfulness is, when the wind of God’s Spirit does blow, having a heart that’s open enough to get caught in the flow.

If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, whether for the first time or yet again, I’m going to give you an opportunity to invite the Spirit into your life.  You know, one of the great things about Pentecost is not that it happened just once, but that it happens again and again.  It is still happening.  The winds of the Spirit are still blowing, landing upon hearts that are open to receive.

If you want to receive the Holy Spirit, I invite you to open your arms in a posture of receptivity and repeat after me:

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill my heart.  Kindle in me the fire of your love.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Burn away my agenda, burn away all other spirits.  Lead me beyond my comfort zone, and fill me with what you want.  I give my life to your control.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill our church.  Unify us.  Empower us.  We joyfully receive you today. We love you.  We’ll do what you want.  We’ll go where you lead.  We want to be part of your love story for the world.  Write the next chapter through us, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin? (Romans 5:6-8, Mathew 7:1-5)

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.


“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

I realized this week that I haven’t been loving my wife as well as I should have been.  So what if I told you that, yesterday morning, before she had her first cup of coffee, I presented her with a list of everything she did wrong last week.  I did that out of my love for her; wasn’t that a loving thing for me to do?  You see, I love her, but I hate all her sins.


I didn’t want to leave anyone else out, so I started thinking about how much I love the rest of my family and friends, and how much I hate their sins.  I sent them all a list of all their sins, because I love them, you know, and that took awhile, because some of them are really big sinners!


But then, I started thinking about all the people I don’t even know.  I don’t want to let God down, and so I’ve taken it upon myself to go up to complete strangers when I see them sinning and letting them know what they’re doing is wrong, because that’s how I show my love for them.  I just can’t help but think of how pleased God is with me for doing such a good job hating sin!  I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty proud of what a loving Christian I’ve been this week by hating so much sin!


If some of you are thinking of going home and applying this principle with your loved ones, let me know today so I can begin scheduling counseling appointments for the rest of the week.


“Love the sinner and hate the sin.”  A popular phrase many Christians claim to believe, but the only household I know of where I know of this being practiced is in the Costanza household on Seinfeld as they celebrated “Festivus.”  If you're familiar with the scene, you're can just feel the love, can’t you?


As Christians, we know Jesus wants us to love people – whether they be sinners or saints – I don’t think anyone would argue with that.  But, we don’t want to be soft on sin, now do we?  And so, we strike a middle ground that makes sense in our heads – love the sinner and hate the sin.  Perhaps with that duality rattling around in our heads, it’s just enough to help Christians sleep at night.


Loving the sinner and hating the sin is easy to say, but impossible to practice.  You can’t practice love and hate at the same time; it’s an impossible dual focus.  By the very definition, “whatever you focus on primarily requires you to focus less on everything else.  Either we focus on loving (the sinner) or hating (the sin).  When you put it that way it seems fairly obvious that we ought to choose loving over hating.  That is, we want to be like Jesus, which means that people would know us primarily because they catch us and feel us loving, not hating.”[1]


Some people point to Scripture as giving them permission, or perhaps even the mandate, to hate sin.  Scripture passages like Romans 12:9 that say: “Love must be sincere; hate what is evil, cling to what is good.”  Well there you go, right?  Hate what is evil – sin, right?


Let’s look at the context here.  Can you make someone else’s love sincere? No, you can only make your own love sincere. Can you make another person cling to what is good? No, you can only make yourself do that.”  So when it comes to hating sin, “you can only hate the sin that is inside you, because you are the only human being who can see into your innermost being.”[2]


So yes, you can hate sin if you want to.  But your own sin.  Not someone else’s.


We like to sit in the seat of judgment.  Feels good to feel right.  But, to hate your sin suggests I have none of my own to worry about, that I’m better than you, holier than you, more righteous than you, in my own mind, anyway.  The truth is, any time we look down our nose on others, we are likely further away from the kingdom of God than the sinners we condemn.


An unhealthy preoccupation with the sins of others is nothing new, but Jesus saved his harshest criticisms for those who were self-righteous and judgmental toward others.  In his day, that was often the Pharisees, whose favorite past-time just happened to be judging other people.  One time, a Pharisee and a tax collector were praying in the temple, and Jesus overheard them both.  The Pharisee bragged about what a good fellow he was, and even thanked God that he was not like other people, sinners, like this tax collector.  The tax collector simply looked at the floor and mumbled, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Jesus said that it was the lowly tax collector, not the high and mighty Pharisee, who was redeemed that day (Luke 18:9-14).


Or another time, Jesus came across an angry mob who had surrounded a woman caught in adultery.  It takes two to tango, but for now, we won’t worry about where her partner was. They were worked up into a frenzy, and someone shouted, “The law says she should be stoned to death,” to which Jesus replied, “So it does.  Whoever among you, angry mob, is without sin, that person is free to cast the first stone” (John 8:1-11).


Jesus wants us to be less concerned with the sins of others than we are with our own sin.  Otherwise, it’s as if we are obsessed with a speck of dust in someone else’s eye, oblivious to an eight-foot-long two-by-four in our own eye (Matthew 7:1-5).


Do me a favor and point at the person next to you.  It’s not polite, I know, but do it anyway.  Keep ‘em pointed and take a look at your hand.  How many of your fingers are pointing at them?  And how many of your fingers are pointing back at you?


Same thing happens when we cast judgment on others.  What we say about others says more about us than it does about them.  Hating the sin of another exposes us more than it exposes them.


Even when we couch it in pious language and say we love the sinner but hate their sin, friends, that’s not our sin to hate.  We still sound very much like the Pharisees, even though we tell ourselves, “I don’t hate them, I only hate everything about them; see how different that is?”  Those who say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” often speak out of an unacknowledged sense of moral superiority.  That’s not being compassionate, it’s condescending.


Jesus told us not to judge.  He did tell us to love.  Love God, love our neighbor.  The whole of God’s law is there.  God’s law is love; God is love.  Period.  You can’t love and hate at the same time.


About love, the Scriptures tell us “it keeps no record of wrong” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  No way around it – you can’t love someone while you keep a tally sheet of their sins.  You can’t love someone while you look down your nose at them.  You can’t love someone while you think you’re better than they are.  Mother Teresa said, “If you love people, you don’t have time to judge them.”


Love is God’s reigning attribute.  God is love.  Love always wins.  Love is always primary.

“But what about truth??” you ask.


What about it?


“We can’t sacrifice truth on the altar of love!”


But we can sacrifice love on the altar of truth? Love is the greatest.


“But I do love sinners! I love them enough to tell them the truth! That they need to repent of their sin so they can go to heaven!”


As my friend Jim Harnish says, “Our doctrine is based on the love of God, which means we’d much rather love the hell out of people than scare the hell out of them.”


Jesus said that people would know we are his followers by our love.  Not our slogans on tee-shirts and bumper stickers, but by our love (John 13:35).


Friends, love isn’t something you say or feel. Love is something you do.


If I ever tell you, “I love this person, but I hate his sin,” I want you to ask me something. “How have you shown him you love him?”


And if I say, “By pointing out his sin. Duh,” I want you to say to me, “That’s not love. Love isn’t pointing out sin. Maybe in the context of an already loving, trusting relationship, but other things have to come first. Like listening. A lunch invitation. An offer to help with something and following through. And finding out more about the person’s childhood. And smiling and laughing together. So, do you love this person?  Really?  How do you love them?”


If you’re so concerned about sinners, treat them like Jesus did.  Jesus humbled himself, left heaven, and came to earth for sinners.  Ate with them.  Befriended them.  Cared about them.  Gave his life for them.  God showed his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).  To those who are shouting slogans about that sin or another, I’d like to ask them, “Those sinners you’re so concerned about – do you love them enough to give your life for them, or do you hope that your shouting will bring people over to your side?”


Shouting the loudest doesn’t make you right.  It makes you loud.  The Scriptures tell us, “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).


You can’t hate and love at the same time.  Hate is but a manifestation of sin. Evil cannot drive out evil (Romans 12:21).  Only love can overcome evil. Hating sin doesn't defeat sin, it only feeds it.


The path to overcoming sin is not hatred. It's love. Perfect love. The perfect love of our heavenly father who has created us all and who hates nothing he has made.  The perfect love of Jesus Christ, the embodied gift of the Father's unfailing love.  The perfect love of the Holy Spirit, who perfect us empowers us to love as God loves. And the perfect love of the community of faith, saints and sinners, all, ushering in Gods kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.


Sin is overcome through God's love, not our hate.  As long as we hate anything or anyone, sin still wins.


When it comes to how we will measure up before God, God isn’t going to ask to see the list of sins we hated to make sure we hit all the right ones.  What God will ask is, "How well did you love?”


Friends, we should all be less concerned with being right, and more concerned with being loving.


Maybe you’ve heard the story of the Cherokee grandmother who was known in her community to be the wisest, strongest, most compassionate member of the community.  Her grandson asked how she had become so kind.  She replied, “There are two wolves inside me.  One is full of love.  The other is full of hate.  There is a constant battle within me between them.”


Her grandson’s eyes went wide, and he asked, “Which one will win?”


“The one I feed.”


Love the sinner and hate the sin?  Well, no.  You can only feed one at a time.


Loving my wife by hating her sin is not only unwise, it’s not even possible.  If you love someone, you love them.  God loves us without any qualifications – through ups and downs, rights and wrongs, understandings and misunderstandings.  “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase that adds a comma where Jesus put a period.  We don’t need the second half of that.  We can stop with the first.  Choose love.  Period.

[1] Kendall, Bishop David. Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin:
[2] Collins, Ken. Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner: