Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Sketch and Shadow

Let’s begin with some housekeeping issues.  Not really related to the Bible study part of this missive, but still important.  For example, you won’t hear from me for the next two Saturdays.  My (or more properly our) vacation begins after worship on Sunday this week and we’ll be gone for two weeks.  So, I don’t plan to poke my nose in here to send you something.  Call me selfish, but there you go.  Secondly, all the members of the Late Night Bible Study group got an email this morning from one of our members who had been hacked.  Hackers get into your address book and send random emails and this bug got the Late Night Bible Study listing.  Please don’t send any money.  And here’s a tip, if you find yourself in need of financial rescue, don’t send an email! 

All of which allows me to put in another reminder.  If you want to comment on a post, please do!  I’d love to start conversations with those who might want to.  But be aware that if you hit reply to the Late Night Bible Study email it goes to everyone in the group.  Which is fine if you want to do that.  But if you are not intending a group email, it can catch you by surprise.  

OK, what else?  I’m sure there are other issues we can deal with here.  There always are.  Little things, niggling things, stuff you’ve just got to stop and deal with before you can get to the issue at hand.  They seem like distractions, diversions before you can get to the real topic, the real issue before you and yet you may find that it is in the details that the real issue becomes more real.  They seem like irritations that you simply have to handle before you can get to the stuff you really want to do.  And yet you may find that it is in how you handle the distractions, the irritations that you learn and live and grow.  Life is lived in the trenches, not just on the mountaintops.  Life is lived in the daily routines, not just on vacation.  (Sorry, had to slip that in!)

Take worship.  Wait, what?  I know, quick shift, sorry.  But take worship.  That center of our existence as followers of Jesus.  We were made for worship.  We are most ourselves when we worship.  Worship is essential to the human spirit.  It helps us keep a proper perspective on life and self and God.  We know what worship is about.  A favorite worship song speaks to our longing for right worship.  

When the music fades / All is stripped away / And I simply come / Longing just to bring / Something that's of worth / That will bless your heart / I'll bring you more than a song / For a song in itself / Is not what you have required / You search much deeper within / Through the way things appear / You're looking into my heart / I'm coming back to the heart of worship / And it's all about you, / It's all about you, Jesus / I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it / When it's all about you, / It's all about you, Jesus

You’re singing along, aren’t you?  That Matt Redman, he knows how to get a tune in your head.  But there is a truth that is here in this song.  The heart of worship.  It’s all about you, Jesus.  We know that.  Jesus, for we who claim the name of Christ, is the heart of worship. 

Yes, Jesus is the heart, but liturgy is the bones.  The structure of what it is that we do when we gather together.  The skeleton of our worship, what enables us to hold the heart in its proper place.  We need the bones or our worship will collapse into a gelatinous pile of mush – emotion and feelings and flesh and tears and shame and wordless crawling approach to a God we aren’t worthy of.   Um, too much?  Maybe we need a different metaphor.  

Hebrews 8:1-6 Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain." 6 But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

We’re coming back to the heart of worship.  That’s what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says.  Not really a letter, more like a sermon.  More like an act of worship.  An exhortation to put Jesus back in His proper place, the center of our worship.  There is none like Him.  There is none who can do what He can do, what He has done.  There is none who can bring us life, bring us salvation, none but Him.  

But we forget that.  We stray from that knowledge, that truth.  We think we can do it on our own.  We’re smart and capable and creative, we can deal with our own stuff, our own issues.  Until we can’t.  Until we are lost in our own brokenness.  Until we are drowning in our own lostness.  And we need to remember the Heart of Worship.  We need to reach out to the One who can rescue us, who can transform us, who can inspire us.  

So we come back.  Back to the community of faith, back to the body of Christ, who will gather us up and help us stand in the Presence of the One true God.  And we sing praise.  And we pray prayers, alone and together, words we form and words that have been given to us by others, to put words to our need and our hope.  And we hear the Word.  No, we see the Word.  We feel the Word.  We bring the Word into the depths of our being and we are renewed.  In ways we barely comprehend, we are given a taste of the spark of life that is a gift of the God we worship.  

Our worship is a sketch and a shadow of the worship we will enjoy in God’s Presence.  It isn’t the real thing, but it is as real as it gets in this life.  It is the pattern that Moses saw when he basked in God’s Presence on the mountain and learned about the law.  The law is also a sketch and a shadow.  It isn’t necessary for God’s people.  Except that it is necessary, because without it we lose track of who and what we are.  It is the form into which we pour ourselves so that we can be reshaped into what we were created to be.  We are most ourselves when we worship.  We are most ourselves when we are obedient to the law of God, to the will of the One who loves us like a father, and nurtures us like a mother.  

And so we worship.  We live the patterns, we draw the sketch.  Knowing that our worship isn’t perfect, but it points to perfection.  It gathers us up into the rhythms of living in the Kingdom.  We create these patterns for our own growth and benefit.  We build a structure around which we find our way into the Presence.  There is both an internal and an external structure. The internal is the shape of each worship experience.  It begins with gathering, calls upon the God who made us, offers praise and celebration in that Presence, gathers around the Word that defines us and shapes us, and then allows for our response to this Word in prayer and sacrament before sending us out into the world reminded that we belong to the One who redeemed us and enlivens us and called to share the Word made flesh with everyone we meet.

The external is the rhythm of the year around which we order our lives, from Advent to Christmastide, and Epiphany to Lent and Easter, Eastertide to Pentecost and then the implications of Pentecost called Ordinary Time and once called Kingdomtide. Called the Liturgical Calendar, it is essentially a reminder of the dance of life, where we partner with Jesus, the Son of God and walk through His life, remembering His birth, His life and ministry, and His tragic death and glorious resurrection.  And then in part two, we receive His gift of Spirit and become the Church, the living presence of the Risen Christ, engaged in His mission of bringing the whole world to the mountain of the Lord where we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  And thus rehearse our life in the Kingdom.  This life is indeed glorious, but it is but a sketch and shadow of the life to come.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Be Careful Then How You Live

Though we didn’t resolve any particular issue, we have successfully navigated the troubled waters of sexuality in our denominational debate, and then we raised and aired the issues related to gun violence in our society. Whew.  Maybe we raised more questions than we answered, to be honest.  But at least we discussed the issues from a variety of perspectives and managed to remain a caring community of faith with room for all.  That in and of itself was a grand achievement.  At least I’m counting it as one.  And then next week we turn, with no little relief, to more informative issues about the ordering of our church life and practice. 

Next week.  Which means that this week we’re still on the edge.  But with a subject that shouldn’t raise such feelings of division and debate, right?  We’re dealing with the role of women in the church and in the family, from a biblical point of view.  Oh.  That.  Well, um.  Of all the subjects in which I am not an expert women is right up there at the top of the list.  Trust me on this.  So, I don’t speak with authority on the issue of women in general, neither do I claim to understand all the issues that women face in our society, or throughout history, the struggles faced and overcome, the mountains they had and still have to climb.  I can’t speak of the psychology of women, how their minds work, or what gives them joy or makes them feel valued.  Partly because I’m not very good about figuring that out, and partly because in my experience women, like men, are individuals who have their own minds and hearts. 

What I do know is the Bible, and how to read it.  And I know that the Bible has been used to oppress women in some significant ways in ages past and today.  So, what I can do is help us take another look and see whether it is inherent in the text that women are subordinate to men.  And if the text does imply such a thing, that whether that is the result of a patriarchal culture surrounding the writers or whether it is indeed the word of God for us and for all time.  I don’t mean to suggest that such a determination is a simple one, but it is certain worth the struggle to get it right.

Ephesians 5:15-33  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

I chose a passage both longer and shorter than the usual take on this subject.  It is shorter because this is part of what is called the “household code”, and it goes from 5:22 through 6:9  It is called the household code because Paul took a common legal statement and reinterpreted it.  There are many household codes from the time, all of them designed to determine the relative status of various members of the household - the women, the children, the servants and slaves.  It is about order, about organizing society in a way that keeps everyone in their place.  At least that is the intention of the code for everyone but Paul.  Paul is interested in how the order can be Christ-like.  We might differ with his results, but that he intends a Christian take to the way things are is clear.  

Especially when you go back and grab the context for this part of the whole conversation to the Ephesians.  That’s why I went back to verse fifteen.  These verses are not considered a part of the code, and yet they help us put the code in a larger context.  “Be careful then,” writes Paul, “how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”  Paul intends us to be aware that our faith is not separate from our life.  This idea that faith is an intellectual exercise, about thoughts we have, beliefs we hold, and not about how we live is an anathema to Paul.  He says that is absurd, that how we live isn’t shaped by how we believe, by our faith. (See Romans 6 for example) So, be careful how you live, he says.  Let your life bear witness to your faith.  

There’s no time to waste, he argues, the days are evil because we are on the brink of the new age.  He isn’t interested in fixing what is wrong in this world, but preparing us for living in the next one.  Consequently he doesn’t challenge the social order, but asks how can we make it as much like the kingdom of heaven as possible.  And his answer is mutual love.  Mutual.  Love.  

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Whatever comes next can only be understood in the context of this verse.  Be subject to one another.  There is a mutuality, and an equality in the faith that Paul expresses.  Which means that we have to listen deeply to the rest of what is written to hear beyond the surface.  

“Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”  Two things of note in interpreting this verse.  First, in the culture in which he was writing, women did not have legal rights, except through a husband or father.  Paul was simply describing the world as it was.  The husband was head of the wife.  That was a legal truth, the rightness or wrongness of this was not under discussion.  It just was.  However, Paul wanted to redefine that headship.  It was not, or rather no longer was for the benefit of the head.  Instead there is now a responsibility laid upon the one in this position.  And that responsibility was to be as Christ-like as possible.  It was now about sacrifice and about surrender.  It was about service to the other, to the ones in care.  

Paul goes on to define this new level of care when he says “husbands love your wives.”  But not just love them, love them like Christ loved the church.  Love them like Christ loved you.  There is an inherent indebtedness.  This is not about power, not about authority, except as Jesus defined authority, as one who serves.  That the church has been complicit in misinterpreting this concept is a painful truth.  Sending women back to abusers as a way of honoring God’s command to be subject is a gross misapplication of this idea.  Of this truth.  

In the end we are not to subject ourselves to any person but Christ.  It is the Christ in the husband that the wife is commanded to be subject to.  Not the man himself, with his sinfulness and self-centeredness.  And the husband is subject to, in the command to love, the Christ in his wife.  This is what Christians marriage is about, individually and mutually seeking to live as Christ to one another and the world.  Challenging one another when we fall short, and acknowledging when we come close.

Even Paul begins to stumble when the implications of this become more clear. “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”  In other words, I barely know what I’m talking about!  This escapes me.  But it is real, it is true.  We are the church, in our relationships with one another and with the world.  We are the church in that we seek after and claim the Christ who dwells within.  

Be careful then how you live.  May it be in a way that brings glory to the cause of Christ, always. 


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Just Keep Passing the Open Windows

He asked me if I attended the concert, and I said, yes I did.  Wasn’t it great, he said, I said it was marvelous.  Yeah, he said.  I just wished they played my favorite song.  They played my favorite, said his companion, as we walked through the parking lot.  And then she began to sing a little bit of it.  That’s when I realized we weren’t talking about the same concert.  They were coming from Reardon Auditorium on the campus of Anderson University where they and a few thousand other folks were coming out of a Casting Crowns concert and feeling the love.  I know they were feeling the love, because they came up behind me while I was giving a good friend a farewell hug.  And he wanted one too.  This Casting Crowns concert stranger, so I obliged.  Hugged him there in the parking lot of the Park Place Church of God, where I had attended the 64th Annual Sacred Music Concert put on by Epworth Forest Choir School.  It was a glorious concert, over a hundred voices singing together songs of praise and celebration to God and gratitude for life in all its fulness.  I was pleased some members of Southport UMC made the journey up to hear the concert too.

For over twenty years I was chaplain to that community, the choir school community.  They sang and I preached and we grew together in those years.  I was a part of them, sort of, not really, because I was never confident enough in my singing to join the choir, but they kept me anyway.  Let me stay a part of them, until it seemed time to leave because of clouds in my life that seemed overwhelming.  I wasn’t sure I could help them anymore, so thought they needed someone else in that role.  So with tears I left that group of friends to do other things. Yet, when I come back to listen to them sing, they welcome me as if I still belong.  As if they have kept me.

Psalm 121:1-8  I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

The Lord is your keeper.  It must be an important thought, because the psalmist uses it six times in eight verses.  The Lord will keep you, and doesn’t doze off in the midst of the job.  The Lord will keep you and give you shade on blistering days.  The Lord will keep you from evil, from all evil.  The Lord will keep you, as you go out and come in.  And go out and come in.  And go out.  And come in.  The Lord will keep you.

It’s nice to be kept.  Nice to belong.  To be connected.  To be loved.  To be protected.  But how does that work, exactly?  What does it mean that God will keep us?  Keep us safe?  Keep us alive?  Keep us from harm?  We’re not sure that we trust in the Lord like we trust in our own resources.  

That’s the genesis of this sermon, by the way.  It was a question about security.  About safety and specifically about  guns we use for protection.  Where do we stand on guns?  That’s a pretty broad question, I realize, which is why I chose to address the larger issue of safety.  The Lord is your keeper.  What does that mean for us who live in a dangerous world?  How do we trust in the Lord?  

In some ways it would be easier to address the gun issue.  The book of Resolutions, which is where the United Methodist Church presents our positions on social issues in detail, declares that every United Methodist Church is a weapon free zone.  In addition the Book of Discipline has a statement about gun violence which includes words about responsible gun ownership and the recommendations on the sale and purchase of guns.  It is not a ban, but an emphasis on safety.  And it reads to me as a sensible statement about an out of control social problem.  But, I suspect others might read it differently.  (See Social Principles ¶162)

But I believe the issue is larger than that.  As significant as that is, and in our gun crazy society, a statement on gun violence and responsible ownership of guns and limiting access to some types of weapons is very significant, but it isn’t the whole issue.  

From where does our help come?  That’s the question.  What do we rely on for our security, our safety and sense of self?  Do we believe that security is in our own hands?  Whether it is guns or walls or laws or locks and prisons; are we trusting in our own power to provide our sense of peace of mind and heart?  Or is there something to this idea that the Lord is our keeper?  It seems naive at best to believe that God will put a bubble around us and keep us from harm when we walk the mean streets of our home towns.  It seems wrong somehow to put God to the test by walking through dark alleys and battle zones protected by nothing but our confident faith in the Almighty.  

So what does the psalmist mean then, when it says that the Lord is our keeper?  What does God keep?  Or how are we kept by God?  We could say that God has a longer view than we do.  That when we are kept by God we are kept into eternity.  And this life and this world is but a moment in that eternity.  So, even if something goes wrong, even if there is pain and suffering and death in this life, we are kept by God into eternity.  And however we transition from this world to the next, we can trust that God will keep us there. And I get that, I do.  But in the meantime?  We’re on our own?  God only keeps us ready for the next world?  What about this one?  What about keeping me alive, my family alive, my community, my nation, my world?  If we want that are we on our own?   

Do you know what it's like to be alone in this world / When you're down and out on your luck and you're a failure / Wake up screaming in the middle of the night / You think it's all been a waste of time / It's been a bad year / You start believing everything's gonna be alright / Next minute you're down and you're flat on your back / A brand new day is beginning / Get that sunny feeling and you're on your way (way) / Just believe - just keep passing the open windows / Just believe - just keep passing the open windows

Any Queen fans out there?  In the 80's, Queen released an album called The Works and there was a song on it called “Just Keep Passing the Open Windows.”  It’s a song about faith, essentially.  No, Queen wasn’t a Christian band, but they sometimes had some profound things to say.  (Like – Scaramouch, scaramouch, will you do the fandango / Thunderbolt and lightning, / very, very frightening me ... jk) Like keep passing open windows.  Which might be something like what the psalmist is telling us.  It might be something like how God keeps us.  

No, God isn’t going to throw a protective shell around us so that nothing will hurt us in this life.  But God might just help us keep finding the open windows, the opportunities, the options, the ways to live life more fully, more alive, despite the risks.  The Lord will keep you from all evil, not by a magic force-field, but by the wisdom to recognize evil when it looks enticing to us.  The Lord will keep a shade over us in the hot sun, not by an invulnerable shield or invisibility cape, but by helping us hold on to truth in an age of lying as a matter of course.

The Lord will keep our going out and our coming in, not by forcing us to stay when we think we should go or to go when we think we should stay, but the ability to experience the presence of the Spirit as we walk through this life, and knowing that we can’t go so far that God has lost touch with us.  And that no matter how far we may have gone there is always someplace to call home, someplace that will welcome us back, no matter what.

I never told my Casting Crowns stranger that I was at a different concert.  And I took the risk of calling his bluff and giving him a hug because maybe we had more in common that either of us knew.  We listened to the praise of the Lord who is our keeper and left knowing that we could trust in that.  Stranger danger?  Sure, take care out there.  But maybe if we trusted in God’s goodness, rather than feared the other and hiding behind walls packing guns, we might find that the world is alive with the Spirit in surprising places.       


Saturday, July 14, 2018

No Longer Worthy

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Famous last words?  The cry of the earnest, but woefully unprepared?  Or just me, biting off more than an elephant can chew?  Yeah, well, definitely the latter, maybe that middle one, and I am praying fervently it isn’t the first.  But here we are.  The jury is still out.

We stand on the threshold of part two of the summer series now called Ask the Pastor.  We began with Meet the Bible and tackled a variety of issues and questions and confusions about this book that we hold so dearly.  But now we turn to larger issues, not unconnected to the Bible, of course, but church and faith issues.  Issues of practice and understanding, issues of history and standing.  Standing?  Yeah, as in “where do we stand on ...”  Oh, that.  Well, OK.  Talk about your proverbial can of worms.  

In the surveys returned there was one issue that far outstripped all the others.  Where does the church stand on... Actually, some of them were even a little more personal, a little more intrusive: Where do you, Pastor, stand on the issue of same sex relationships?   Where do we stand as a congregation?  Where do we stand as a denomination?  Well, actually, that last one is easy.  And enormously difficult.  Easy because there are statements that are clear in our Book of Discipline.  But difficult because these arguably don’t represent the position of many in the United Methodist Church.  And they have brought us to a point in our history where we stand on the brink of dissolution over this very issue and the implications of a variety of stances.  Not a simple thing.  Not a simple stance.  Not just a preference for fish over chicken, corn over peas.  Wrapped up in this position, in this debate and battle, are questions of identity, of humanity, of worthiness.

Who is worthy?  To stand before the Lord?  To take a place in the family of God, in the body of Christ?  Who is worthy to lead God’s people, to speak God’s Word?  These are the questions we ask here.  The opinions we hold here.  It’s not just where we stand on “those people.”  But how we respond to our brothers and sisters.  How we include, how we welcome, how we share the life changing power of Christ.  And the ability to admit that what might need changing is us.

When I decided that I had to be faithful to the process and respond to the many requests for conversation around this issue in the church, I first thought I would deal with it head on.  Grab one of the passages that seem so clear to so many and deal with that from the pulpit – thus saith the Lord.  But then I thought that wasn’t fair, not fair to the Word, not fair to the community.  So, I’m inviting the Southport UM community and any interested parties to join us for a conversation around the issue on Tuesday, July 17, at 2:30pm or 7pm.  We will address some of the specific passages as well as update ourselves on the activities of the denomination as we continue to wrestle with our stance.

That leaves us with worship.  What can we do in response to the question as we gather for worship?  I decided to take a slightly different approach.  Maybe it is avoidance.  But I prefer to think it is about unity instead of agreement.  It is about behavior and about the practice of being the church instead about opinions.  It’s about listening to Jesus.  Which means what we need in this moment is a story.

Luke 15:11-32 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

It was an outrageous request.  An offensive request.  He said to his father, why aren’t you dead yet?  Your value to me is in the stuff that will be mine one day, not in you.  If there was ever a son who needed slapped down, it is this one.  But he wasn’t slapped down.  He received what he asked for.  The father did what no father would do.  He broke the bank, broke tradition, broke open his wallet and took it out.  Took it all out.  The younger son, the prodigal, ran away as fast as his feet would take him. Did everything, tried everything, went everywhere, lived high on the hog.  Until he didn’t anymore.  Until it all came crashing down.  Until knee deep in pig slop, he came to himself.  “I’m no longer worthy.”

What does that mean, we wonder?  What did it mean for him, what does it mean for us?  Was it a true change of heart, change of mind, change of life?  Or another scheme?  Another plot, another way to play his old man and come out better than he was now?  Was the speech he rehearsed all the way home from the heart, or from an empty pocket?  We would need to be sure.  Before we’d welcome him in again.  Before we’d put ourselves at risk of being hurt again.  Before we could call him worthy.  

But a strange thing happened.  His father ran to meet him, didn’t really listen to his speech, didn’t ask for an accounting or a sense of shame or a willingness to change.  No, he just gathered him up and treated him as though he was worthy.  As though he was a son.  As though he belonged.  And he was swept up into the party, welcomed home, where he had all he ever wanted.   End of story.

Well, no, not quite the end.  There is the older brother.  And we may have been at one time in our lives a prodigal, maybe.  But now we’re all older brothers.  If you’re reading this blog, more than likely, you’re an older brother.  And now it falls on you.  Jesus didn’t finish the story.  Didn’t finish our story.  He just stands there with his arms around the one we want to keep out, the one different from us, the one who makes us uncomfortable, and says “but we had to celebrate.”  

 Because he is worthy.  It isn’t what we do that makes us worthy, it’s what He does.  


Saturday, July 7, 2018

You're Wearing That?

We conclude part one of our Summer Series this weekend with an emphasis on grace and forgiveness.  Part one is the “Meet the Bible” section where I asked the congregation to submit to me questions about the Bible that we then explored in both worship and Bible study during the week.  We covered a wide range of questions and concerns and are concluding with two thematic studies.  What does the Bible say about heaven, that was last week.  And what the Bible says about grace and forgiveness this week.

I confess, when I first saw this theme on the survey sheets, I was upset.  We’d just covered grace during Lent this year.  We talked about forgiveness in the midst of that and in other places.  Surely we’ve got it now.  Surely we know what grace and forgiveness is, or are, or whatever!  One of the survey forms even read like this: “I know we just covered this, but I need to know more!”  More?  C’mon people!  

But then, I thought, Jesus seemed to come back to this theme again and again.  The Bible as a whole covers grace and forgiveness from beginning to end.  The precedent is set.  The need to explain again and again and again is clear.  This is something we wrestle with.  Something that seems out of reach, inconceivable in some ways.  You mean, we ask, we don’t want what we deserve?  We want mercy?  And that’s what God prefers anyway?  Wow.  So, here we are again, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. 

To help us out, we’re going to get practical.  If you can join us for worship at Southport UMC this weekend, we have a story to tell that will give you a new appreciation for the working of grace and forgiveness in real human lives.  To understand something is one thing, to live it or see it lived out is another.  So come and see, or come and hear and maybe understand a little bit more about the power of grace and forgiveness in the world in which we live.  

But there are some who can’t make it, I understand.  So, instead, I’ll give you a real world example.  Look in the mirror.  Seriously.  Look.  Particularly at your outfit.  What are you wearing?  As you go out and about in the world, how do you dress for the part?  I know, it sounds weird.  But I didn’t come up with it.  It’s not my question.  It’s Paul’s.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look.

Colossians 3:12-17  As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Is it?  Is it you?  Is it me?  Does designer Paul have the outfit to die for?  Or maybe to live for?  Clothe yourself, he writes to this little church.  Clothe yourself.  Colossae is a small town that got bypassed by a Roman road and was hitting hard times.  Once a busy center for the manufacture of a bright red wool, Colossae now struggles to keep up with the bright lights of Laodicea, a new city founded to compete with the industry Colossae made famous. And on top of that, there was an earthquake that nearly destroyed everything.  One while Jesus was at work in Israel and the surrounding area and then another some years later.  Paul’s letter may be in between the quakes.  The city was rebuilt both times, but it never really got going again.  It was almost as though they were afraid it could happen again, so they lived their lives afraid of things out of their control. 

We don’t know how the church got started there.  Paul says he planned to go, but never made it.  That’s what he tells his friend Philemon, who was from Colossae.  So, it was probably planted by one of Paul’s converts, or co-workers.  Which is why Paul wants to keep in contact.  He feels responsible for them, even though he has never met them face to face.  He heard, somehow, that they were struggling.  He heard that what was once a strong faith, what was an active church was now floundering.  How serious was the decline?  We don’t know.  They seemed distracted, when you read between the lines of Paul’s letter.  In the second chapter he warns them not to be thrown off track by a variety of arguments, to not let others challenge their faith and their practice.  To stay true, to stay faithful, to stay trusting.  

It was like they lost their grip on the why and the what.  What did they believe and why do they do what they do?  So, Paul addresses that.  He blesses them and then sets out to teach them the theology they thought they knew but lost somewhere along the line.  He talks about who Jesus was and is, about the fullness of God and the source of strength and hope and joy.  He talks to them like he is their father and they are his children.  He tells them what is on his heart, how he longs for them, for their well-being and their growth in the faith.  Oh, did I mention he is writing this from prison?  Yeah, this note of encouragement, of uplift, of instruction comes while Paul is under arrest and awaiting his execution.  Even there, even then his first thought is not of his own circumstance, but of a church struggling to find its way in a complex world.

To help him minister to this troubled church, here in the third chapter he turns to the matter of fashion. First, before our passage, he talks about cleaning out the closets.  He talks about what you need to take off and throw away.  He talks about the wide ties and the leisure suits that you are still trying to get by with and he says, for heaven’s sake, just chuck it all away.  It doesn’t fit anymore, since you’ve become a new person.  Since you’ve had your makeover, your whole wardrobe is for someone you aren’t anymore.  So, get rid of it!  It makes you shudder when you look at it anyway, what were you thinking when you bought some of that stuff anyway?  

Now that you’re back from Goodwill, let’s go shopping, says Paul the couturier.  Better yet, let’s look at my spring collection.  Try it on!  Put on then compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Oh, yes, that’s what will turn heads.  That is so you.  Or at least the you you long to be, the you you are becoming.  

But wait, there’s more.  You’ve got to accessorize.  Sure compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience is a good look.  But to move through the crowds, to interact with the in crowd and the out crowd, you need a finishing touch - forgiveness.  The ability to put back together what has come apart.  The ability to heal what has been broken.  The skill to stitch a tear in the fabric of relationship and community.  A useful skill, to say the least.

Did I say finishing?  No, wait, there’s more.  Every good ensemble needs a belt, needs something to hold it all together, to bind it up and harmonize the different elements of the outfit.  Above all else, put on love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.  

Now that’s a good look, says Paul as he stands back to gaze at the transformation taking place in front of him.  You are a wonder, a vision, you are the body of Christ.  So, what do you think?  Is it you?  Are you ready to live into the possibility of wearing this ensemble?

Are you going out wearing that?  


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Star Differs From Star

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / no hell below us / above us only sky / Imagine all the people living for today. / Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people living life in peace, you / You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope some day you'll join us / And the world will be as one / Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you / You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope some day you'll join us / And the world will be as one

No heaven.  Imagine.  Heaven is hard to imagine.  It is almost more than our minds can comprehend.  We aren’t equipped to hold eternity in our skulls.  It won’t fit.  It doesn’t compute.  Our imagination, as wondrous as that gift is, isn’t up to the task of imagining heaven.  Yet, there seems to be one thing harder.  Imagining that there is no heaven.

I understand John’s point, his plea really.  He’s asking all of us consider not taking this world for granted.  To live as though this was it, this world, this life and to do all we can do to focus on the things that matter.  I get it.  And I agree.  Furthermore, I think Jesus would agree.  With the sentiment that this life matters.  Not just for what it gets us in the next one.  But it’s own sake.  This life matters.  Because it is the place where we can live the heaven we hope for.  

It makes a world of difference whether we see this life as something to be survived, something to suffer through, or something to practice heavenly living.  It makes a world of difference whether this world is devoid of the divine hope, a desert to crawl through, parched for the waters of life, or if there are glimpses of heaven around every corner.  

We’re obsessed with heaven.  It’s been on our minds ever since we had minds.  It was on the minds of some in the Southport UMC congregation when I gave them the Meet the Bible survey.  We’re concluding that part of the summer series with some reflections on Bible themes.  Not a specific passage or book of the Bible, but threads that appear throughout in various ways.  Next week we’ll look at grace and forgiveness as Biblical themes.  But this week it is heaven.  

Heaven slips in and out of the scriptures so often that it should have been easy to get a text to wrestle with.  What was difficult was finding something that would let us wrestle with the reality of heaven, since there is so little that we can know for sure.  What we want is a map, a Google street view so we could gaze down the streets, read the names on the mailboxes and see if there is anyone we know.  What we want is a glimpse of the landscape of heaven. But those passages aren’t really very helpful.  Too symbolic, too jeweled or gold-plated to be useful.  

On the other hand we have Jesus who tosses out glimpses of heaven like they are riddles to be puzzled over, enigmas to befuddle.  It’s like He wants to give us hints, but vastly overrates our ability to comprehend.  Oh, we get glimpses, we get hints, but no large oil painting we can hang over the couch in the living room, no jpg we can use as wallpaper on our computers, or could cut and paste our own face over and send out on Instagram - Hi, it’s me, from heaven! Wish you were here.

Wish we were there.   It’s an ache within us this wishing to be there.  Most of the time we don’t think about it.  Most of the time we are busy with living, as we should be.  But now and then it overwhelms us.  This sense that we aren’t where we’re supposed to be.  That it’s long past time we should be going home.  The home we long for, the home we were created for.  The home for peace and justice, the home for love and wholeness, the home where we know we are welcomed, and loved and accepted.  
How will we get there?  That’s what we really want to know.  Yeah, we want to know what it looks like, but even more we want to know what we will look like.  What will our loved ones look like?  What will we be?

1 Corinthians 15:35-58 But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed,  52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Whew.  That’s a lot of words to say I don’t know.  But that’s the message.  That’s the truth.  He doesn’t know.  But then again, he knows, does Paul.  He knows that what happens in that transition from here to there, from this world to the next one, he knows it is in God’s hands. That’s what he knows.  It’s all in God’s hands.  God will take the nothing that is us and make it something.  A seed, an essence, that which is us, fundamentally us, and create something new.  A new body.  Imperishable.  Spiritual, but not just spirit.  A body made of Spirit.  That which doesn’t decay, doesn’t erode.  A body like Jesus’s, who after resurrection ate and talked and touched and was held.  But also entered through barriers, was everywhere at once, was recognizable and not at the same time.  He was ... No, He is.  That’s the promise.  He is.  And because He is, we will be too.

My head is spinning, how about you?  We can only grapple with these things for so long.  And then words run out, images fail to capture.  We’re left with a shrug of the shoulders and a strange, but contented smile that says I know.  I know what is unknowable.  I know with faith what my mind can’t comprehend.  And one day I’ll see with the eyes that I am given when raised from the seed that is me.  One day I’ll home to the place I know and will recognize though I have never been there before.  But I’ll be home.  With you.  In glory.  We’ll be like stars, shining with a light that comes from beyond.  The same in glory, but different, recognizable, you’ll be you, I’ll be me, as star differs from star.  But one, in a profound way we can only glimpse now. One with Christ, one with each other and one in adoration with the world.  Thanks be to God. 


Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Hard Saying

Vacation Bible School was this week at Southport UMC.  Or VBS in the alphabet soup that is ministry in the UMC.  Many of you have been there, participated, volunteered, helped create an experience of faith and Bible for kids wired on summer, so you know how close it always teeters to the brink of disaster.  How quickly it can all collapse like a house of cards.  And once it is over you wonder if anything happened, any teaching occurred, any seed got planted. Or is the best we can say that we provided a brief respite for harried mothers and fathers in a too long summer.  

My task this year was to be the one who told the “Cool Bible Adventures” when each crew of elementary kids showed up at my station.  “Cool” Bible Adventures because the theme was Polar Blast and the kids were divided into Polar Bears and Penguins and Moose.  They even took a moment on opening day to point out that they were aware that Penguins and Polar Bears lived on opposite ends of the planet, but that for this week, they were friends, ok?  And the moose (mooses, meese, mise?  Whatever) were just visiting, I guess.  And we were not just supposed to read a Bible story, no we were to “experience a cool Bible adventure.”  Right.  Easy enough, I’m somewhat familiar with Bible adventures, so no problem.  

The first day was Jesus saying “let the little children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Easy as pie.  The second day was the crucifixion.  And the third day was the resurrection.  Um, what?  In twenty five minutes I was to help a group of elementary age children experience the crucifixion and then the resurrection.  Experience the crucifixion.  Yes, well.  You know I’ve been trying to do that for adults for over thirty years and I’m still not sure I’ve got that right.  But elementary kids on summer break, fresh from hot and sweaty games in the yard and powdered sugar donut holes for snowball snacks?  How in the world do we shape these deep and profound concepts around those minds?  Around any of our minds, come to think of it? It’s just hard. 

In our summer Bible preaching series, we’ve come to the place I decided to call “troublesome Bible passages.”  There were so many questions about so many verses and passages and stories, that it was hard to pin it down to just one or two.  There is just some difficult stuff in there.  Stuff we stumble over on a regular basis.  And what seems simple and straightforward to some is impossible for others.  

And most of the time we think the problem is us.  We’re just dumb, we think, we just don’t know enough.  But it may be more than that.  Not just our lack, but something that is so radically different from our normal ways of thinking that it comes across as impossible, incomprehensible.  We might be able to hear it, but we can’t experience this Bible adventure, cool or not cool.  And we aren’t the first to have that problem.

John 6:60-69 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Older translations wrote that the people said “This is a hard saying.”  It was a hard saying.  In some ways an incomprehensible saying.  Jesus had been talking about being the Bread of Life, and suggesting that His followers should eat His body and drink His blood.  And that by doing so we would live forever.  It sounded like gibberish.  It sounded like nonsense.  They looked at His face, waiting to see the smile break out and the joke would be on them.  But He seemed serious.  Dead serious.  Or maybe eternally serious.  Yet what could it possibly mean?  Cannibalism?  Surely not.  The people of God had long ago turned their back on such prehistoric things as human sacrifice and feasting on the blood of the enemy.  So, what could He be referring to?  

A hard saying indeed.  And not the first from His lips.  Nor will it be the last.  But for some reason John grabs this one as definitive.  This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  And some of the disciples - notice it was disciples, followers, students, learners, not just the on-lookers - wandered off.  And quit following Him that day.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years of ministry it is that people walk away.  And they walk away for all kinds of reasons.  But more often than not, if you look deep enough, there was a hard saying that got in the way.  Maybe the hard saying was something complicated like body and blood as a transmitter of life and the modern mind just decides it isn’t worth trying to figure it out.  Or maybe the hard saying is something like “love your neighbor as yourself” and it isn’t the understanding that’s hard, it’s the doing.  Easier to walk away.  Go back to what makes sense.  At least what the world thinks makes sense.  Looking out for yourself, keeping what’s yours, there isn’t enough so get yours first, that kind of thing.  Those sayings fit the world we have better.  At least that’s what some think.

Some disciples walked away because it got too hard.  Hard to understand, hard to follow, just hard.  And Jesus let them go.  It made Him sad, I believe.  As you read the rest of the moment that John captures in our passage this week, you can’t help but feel that Jesus is sad to see them go.  He turns to the twelve, the ones He called by name and asked them to follow.  And says “are you leaving too?”  They say “where would we go?”  It was Peter, he was the spokesperson again.  You notice he doesn’t say, no, it all makes sense to us.  We’re hanging around.  He says our options are limited.  You’ve got the words.  We don’t know what they mean any more than anyone does.  But we know there is something there.  Something about life.  Something about eternity.  We don’t know what it is, but we’re staying with you.

When we worship, we’ll look at some of these hard sayings, we’ll try to come up with a plan on how to deal with them.  We’ll take a look at the context, we’ll take a look at the genre of literature, we’ll ask if there are similar statements that maybe put a different light on it.  We’ll do whatever it takes to help us deal with these hard sayings.  But in the end we’ll also admit that there is some stuff we just won’t get.

Or at least we won’t get it when we’re standing still.  Maybe that’s the secret to the hard stuff of the faith.  When we sit and try and puzzle it out, we get stumped.  It’s too hard.  It’s beyond us.  But when we take that step of faith, and venture out, what didn’t make sense before now seems so evident we can hardly believe it.  Of course we are sustained by the body and blood of Jesus!  Of course we want to love our neighbor as ourselves.  How could we not?  It is in the doing that the understanding will come.

So, I asked my little elementary groups of VBS kids not to understand crucifixion and resurrection, but to experience what it is to be loved.  Loved so powerfully, loved completely, loved in such a way that you are filled to the brim with it.  Did they get it then?  I don’t know.

Do you?