Saturday, September 17, 2016

Breaking Down the Walls

What a day it has been.  Which is why I am late.  It has been a full day, and joyous and frustrating day, a deep and profound day, and a minutiae and logistics day.  La Donna and I were asked to come present the Spiritual Growth Study that we did at Mission u this summer.  We condensed 8 hours of teaching into one and a half.  It was a fasten your seatbelts kind of experience.  We said we weren’t going to solve things, just stir them up.  We weren’t going to give answers or even all the questions, maybe just draw some lines around the general area.  And what area was that?  The Bible and Human Sexuality.  Right, that one. Easy stuff.  Surface level stuff.  Right?  Or rather the kind of stuff we won’t really talk about because we won’t know whether they are there.  They?  You know, they.  The they who frighten us, the they who differ from us, the they whose opinions cause us distress.  You know .... they.

From there we drove to Frankfort, where dad is.  He had been moved to a different room and for some reason not everything got moved.  Plus his phone wasn’t working for some reason.  It was when I left it for him.  Anyway, we got there late and worked hard, moved some heavy stuff.  I think I just figured out why they didn’t move it.  Unhooked and rehooked up his computer so now he can communicate again.  We’re still working on the phone.  But between arranging and rearranging, plugging and unplugging and replugging, shifting and moving, and sweating, they keep those places warm, we finally got it all done, or the part we could handle tonight.  And we chatted and promised to return and we left, driving the two hours home, wondering why they weren’t taking care of the things we needed taken care of.  Even though we didn’t always know what that was.  But they should, shouldn’t they?  And why they didn’t bring the other stuff?  And why did they let his phone die?  And why did they let it get so blamed hot in there?

They.  The ones to blame when you’re tired of looking at yourself.  They.  The ones to fear because a good enemy gets people motivated, but often in knee jerk kinds of ways.  They.  The source of all your troubles, why you didn’t get the promotion, why you didn’t get elected, why you aren’t chosen for the team, they did it, they set me up, they are out to get me.  They.

Ephesians 2:11-16 11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands –  12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

We are still swimming in the sea of Ephesians.  This passage is only a part of what will be presented in worship.  A small part.  We are galloping through another chapter and a half in worship on Sunday.  A chapter and half.  How in the world can we hope to understand a chapter and a half?  Well, we won’t.  We can’t.  This is an exercise in experience not knowledge.  The words wash over us is a torrent and we feel the erosion working on us.  And what is supposed to be eroding in this section of Ephesians?

The dividing wall.  The us and the them.  This torrent of words is designed to wear away our suspicions and our distrust, designed to help us see what connects us and not what makes us different.  Not what keeps us apart, but what brings us together.  For He is our peace, writes Paul.  There is, in short, a possibility for reconciliation, for unity, for community.  Because of Jesus Christ.  We are made one in Him.

This second half of chapter two and all of chapter three is all about being made one.  Not necessarily choosing unity, or accepting unity, or embracing unity, but about being made into a unit.  Wait, what?  If I don’t choose it, it isn’t going to happen.  Right?  Well, no, frankly.  It’s not up to you, you don’t have that kind of power.  Oh you can choose.  You can choose to be in Christ or not.  You can choose to follow Him or not.  But once you’ve made that choice then you surrender the right to choose very much else.  Once you have given yourself to Him, you then begin to live as He calls you to live.  

Once you claim Christ you get the world thrown in too.  How about them apples?  Choosing Christ, is choosing unity, even with those who aren’t like you.  Those who are far off.  In other worlds, in other realities, in other ways of knowing and being known.  That far.  Because they get to choose Christ too.  And in return those folks, the former they, they get something thrown in too.  They get you.  How about them apples?  They get you to be in community with, to love like they love themselves, to love only a little less than they love God.  Oh, man.  It’s almost too much.

No wonder Paul ends this first section (chapters one through three) in the letter to the Ephesians with a prayer.  God, I hope they get it, he prays.  I hope they can figure this thing out.  I hope they understand just how wide and high and deep God’s love for them in Christ is.  But also just how wide and high and deep their love for each other will become as they move closer to Christ.  Because they move closer and the others move closer, and in moving closer to Christ, we end up moving closer to each other.  It’s not our choice, it is just the reality of the movement.  It just happens.  Get used to it.  

Even though it is almost incomprehensible that I would learn to love one of them.  Insert your them of choice here.  I can’t even imagine doing that.  I can’t imagine going there.  I can’t imagine loving like that.  I just can’t  

Ephesians 3:20-21 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.  

Far more than we can ask or imagine.  Hmm.  Imagine that.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Prayer for the Church

It’s the anniversary of a terrible day.  Or an amazing day of grace and life and hope and community. Depends. It depends on which you want to acknowledge, which you want to remember.  We could be reminded that we are vulnerable, that we have enemies - but where’s the news in that?  Anyone who has studied history already knew that, we didn’t need a tragedy to be told that.  Or maybe we did. Anyone who has read the Bible seriously knows that we are vulnerable, that we have enemies, Jesus told us that, prophets too many to name in this space told us that.  We didn’t need a tragedy to be told that.  Or maybe we did.  

But what would be better to remember is that we did come together as a nation.  That we set aside differences long enough to care and support and heal and strengthen.  In the dust and ash of the falling towers, race didn’t matter, in the shouts of pain and the echoes of promised support, accent didn’t matter.  In the rubble of our arrogant confidence in our individualism and nationalism, tribal origin didn’t matter.  In our cry for the loving arms of our God, how we prayed didn’t matter.  Just that we prayed.  With words and with tears, with sacrifice and with hands outstretched to help and to hold, we prayed.  Fifteen years later it is possible to forget that we prayed.  And that prayers were answered by those like us and those not like us, those we know and trust and those of whom we are now suspicious.  What brought us together is what we need to remember.  And not just the tragedy, but the will, the will to rise and to care and to give and heal, the will to be a nation of community and trust, of sacrifice and goodness.  The tragedy did not define us, the response did.  Let us live into that definition.

All year long, in the background of our worship experience, there has been a prayer.  A prayer for the church from the Letter to the Ephesians.  We now turn to an examination of that letter.  Ephesians is divided into two sections, chapters one through three and chapters four through six.  For two weeks we will examine part one, then we’ll take a breather and then two weeks on part two.  The prayer for the church is the hinge around which the two parts turn.  Part one is about what God has done in Christ.  Done for us, done in us.  About grace and inheritance, about the presence of God in Jesus and how we tasted that presence in our adoration of him, and how we were brought into the glorious light. Part two is the so what part.  It is our response to all that has been done.  Because of Christ, we now live.  And what does that life look like?  Because of grace we are empowered, so how do we employ that power?  Because we are reconciled, brought back into the light of Christ, we can see, ourselves and our world and the promises on the horizon.  So what do we see and how do we speak of that seeing?  

That’s what Ephesians does for us.  So, we need to sit in that light these weeks.  But we’re going to study this word in a way that will feel strange to us.  To study means to dig down and mine for the nuggets of knowledge and insight.  We need to take notes and ask questions, we need to wrestle with interpretations and possible meanings.  We need to engage our brains.  That’s how we study.  How we usually study.

But this time, these weeks, we need to engage our hearts.  We need to engage our souls.  No, we don’t turn off our brains, but we release our brains to listen and flow and let the light come how it comes. Four weeks for six chapters.  Each week we will be presented with a chapter and half of this amazing letter.  Too much to attack with tweezers and scalpels.  We are, instead, riding on the surface of the poetry of the language, letting it carry us where we need to go, seeing who we need to be.  Letting it wash over us, like standing under a torrential rain, or a waterfall that pours down over us.  We can’t swallow it all, we can’t digest each drop, but we can be soaked to the skin by a word of grace.  Which is just what we need.

At least I believe it is.  We need to be still and listen to God’s Word.  Even when our brows furrow from the unfamiliarity of the phrasing, the words that cry out to be interpreted.  We’re going to let them stand on their own.  Stand, no, the Word doesn’t stand.  It washes over us, it cleanses us, it carries us away.  The Word of God is living and active.  It doesn’t just stand.  If it seems to just stand, if it feels like we are just letting it stand there, like a marble statue to be gazed at and then walked away from, then it is because we haven’t opened ourselves up enough, we haven’t prayed that the Word will come alive in us.  That’s the prayer we pray this week.  Let the Word come alive in us. That we might come alive because of the Word.  That we might know life, the life the Word wants to impart, to breathe into us.  We aren’t attacking the Word to wrestle out a meaning, we are encountering the Word so that meaning takes root in us.

If you’re able to worship with us at Aldersgate, then you’ll have an opportunity to encounter this Word in worship.  I invite you to come prepared to be exposed to God’s Word, vulnerable, risky. Come expecting to be challenged and transformed and loved.  If you’re not able to come, you can wait and listen online ( and let the Word speak into your ears through the computer.  Let that spoken Word, that performed Word come alive in you.

Or you can read it yourself.  Find a Bible (I’m not pasting the passage here - go look for it), turn to Ephesians 1:1 and read through to Ephesians 2:10.  Read it as if it mattered.  Read it as if it were a letter from your lover, from your mother, from your teacher, from the friend you hurt a long time ago and have carried the guilt for that hurting ever since.  Go and read it as though it was written for you. Because it was.

Next week in this space we’ll do some background on the Letter.  I almost did it here, but decided to wait.  Right now, I’m just inviting you to dive in.  Into the deep waters of the Word of God as found in the Letter to the Ephesians.  I’m praying for you as you read, or listen, or dangle your toes in the waters of life, or dive into the depths.  I’m praying for you, with Paul.  And this is our prayer:

Ephesians 3:14-21  For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

And amen.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

This Fellow Began to Build

It was a long hot week of manual labor and family memories.  That’s why I was absent last week.  I went to Tennessee to attack Dad’s house, to see if we could get it to the state where it would look presentable to someone who just might want to buy it.  It was a daunting task.  But we chipped away, bit by bit, load by load, five trips to the recycling center in town, four trips to the Resale Shop off the courthouse square, and one big truckload to the dump on the edge of town.  At the end of the week the place was transformed.  Like a real house, instead of the dumping ground it had become.  We had a sense of accomplishment, a sense of bringing order out of chaos, of moving forward to the next chapter in all of our lives.  Good has been done here, as Bob the Tomato has been known to quote in the Veggie Tale videos we watched with the kids all those years ago.  Good has been done here.

Wait, did I say dumping ground?  That’s a bit unfair.  I mean, sure it seemed like junk and a lot of it was junked.  But it was more, it was memories, years and years of memories.  It was life lived, not just one life - my mom now resting in the arms of her savior, or my dad now unsettled in a new place back in Indiana, whose life had been turned upside down in a matter of days. Yes, they were present in all the detritus of those two from whom we all sprang, but there were more, lines of family back through the years, farther than we could countenance as we sifted through the piles, family we knew in the dim recesses of experience and family we had only speculated about, storied about, and even family we didn’t recognize and couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular branch.  Family galore, family abundant, some long gone and others lost in the busyness of living a life apart from them, and some a Christmas card acquaintance at best.  But family.

Not just family.  Those memories included family of a different sort.  Families of covenant and not blood, of faith and not shared history, except for the history of now, or of at one time.  There were representations of churches in many states and eras, groups and structures that jangled dim recognition and others that rang clearly even through our weary fog.  Gatherings of people from eras long gone, with funny hair and clothes that seem too out dated to me retro.  Yet, they were smiling and holding on to one another, closer than people usually are in most places, like they genuinely enjoyed one another’s company, like they belonged together in a way deeper than shared DNA.  Like they would be there for one another when push came to shove, no questions asked.

We didn’t know most of them.  At least we didn’t know their names or what church they came from or what era they belonged to, whether we were even alive when the photos were taken.  Yet we knew them.  Knew that they had been a part of the church, part of the flock, part of the family of followers, of disciples.  Because in addition to the joy, there was a seriousness about those faces.  And rightly so.

Luke 14:25-33 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Can I go back to cleaning out the house? ...  Was it because there was a large crowd following Him?  Did He turn around and get scared by all of them and then think “what can I do to the thin the herd?”  Why does Jesus have to make it so hard to follow Him?  He says, follow me, but we’ve got to leave everything to do it.  Why?  Why can’t we add it to our long list of other interests?  Our overfull schedule of appointments and good deeds?  Why can’t Jesus be satisfied with giving Him what we have the time to give?  At least that’s something, right?  At least we’re giving it a try.  When we can.  When nothing else is going on.  When the kids aren’t in town.  When we haven’t been out too late the night before and that dopey pastor put the real worship service at an hour before God gets out of bed!  Surely that ought to count for something.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Um.  Not going to happen.  Let’s be honest here.  It just isn’t.  At least in the usual way we understand that word and that experience and that emotion.  We’re good at hating, frankly.  But this list isn’t the one we use to list the objects of our hate.  OK, maybe moments we get angry enough at them.  Maybe we know of those whose home experience is so terrifying that hate is the only human response to the abuse and neglect they received.  But that’s not most of us.  And it seems to me that there are other places where Jesus tells us to love and care for one another, to forgive over and over, to not condemn, to ... Well, you get the point.  This passage doesn’t jibe with our overall understanding of what Jesus asks us to do.  It just doesn’t.  

So, we have two responses.  One is to just pretend we didn’t read it.  I know, you smiled at that one, didn’t you?  We say, we can’t do that!  But we do it all the time.  We pretend Jesus didn’t say a lot of things that he said.  We just focus on the doable stuff, the stuff we like, the stuff that affirms us as we are.  And bleep over the unpronounceable words in the larger text.  But, and let’s be clear, I’m not advocating that approach.  Even though I’m as guilty as any.

Which leaves us with response number two: go back to the text and wrestle with it a little while.  Maybe there is something there, a hint, a translation error, an editorial gloss we can undo and get back to something that lets us breathe a little bit better.  Or, failing that (and believe me, I hunted for a long time for something like that - no luck) we listen again trying to find some meaning that is escaping us.  We wrestle, like Jacob at Jabbok’s Ford, and risk coming away with a limp because we’ve seen the face of God.

Skip ahead.  We’ll come back to that sticky verse.  The bulk of the passage is two parables about making plans, about counting the cost.  One is a king going to war, or preparing for a war that is coming and deciding whether he can wage this war or he needs to sue for peace.  The other is a construction worker who is building a tower and needs to know whether or not he has the means to finish it.  Jesus is clearly asking the large crowd behind him whether they really want to make this journey, whether they want to fight the battle that is coming, whether they want to build the tower that he wants them to build.  Are you in or not in?  And, let’s be clear, it isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  This is a battle for your own and everyone else’s soul, this is nothing less than the construction of the kingdom of God going on within and around you.  Are you committed to this transformation, are you willing to invest the blood, sweat and tears it is going to take?  

Sure, we shout, confident souls that we are.  At least right now, in this moment, safe and secure from all alarms.  But when the going gets tough, then what?  When we stumble and fall, then what?  When tragedy strikes, then what?  That’s what He is asking us to consider.  And when we sober up to the reality of the question, we can say, “we want to.  But what will it take?”  And He’ll answer, give up everything.  Everything.  Every thing.  Father, mother, wife, children ... Everything is a daunting list.  Your own life.  Your pride and greed, your gifts and talents, the things that give you joy and the things that make you roll your eyes and sigh.  Everything.  Give it up.  

You can’t be serious.  He can’t be serious.  Ah, but He is.  Give it up.  And follow Him.  Carrying His cross.  On which hang father, mother, wife, children, you own life.... Everything.  Here’s what He asks.  Don’t love them with your love, love them with mine.  Don’t cling to people or things because they meet your needs or serve you.  Receive them as a gift from the One you follow.  Because we can’t love them like they need to be loved, we can’t even love them like we want to love them.  But in His love we can love like He loves.  Compared to His love working through us ours is feeble and broken and selfish and temporary, and almost looks like hate.  So, give that kind of love up.  It doesn’t serve.  Instead we can love like He loves.  We can see through His eyes, we can serve with His hands.  Then when we pick up, in His love, those we call family, we find more than what we thought we had.  Then when we begin to build, we might actually finish, even as we are being finished in Him.