Thursday, February 11, 2016

Captured By Love

Let me tell you my love story. 

The story starts in the early 1960’s when a young preacher boy at Mercer University catches the eye of a beautiful secretary and fellow student.   When they marry, the preacher and the teacher dream of a family together.    

The couple spends their newlywed years pastoring a country church.  They learn how to love and be loved among these farmers, doctors and house wives.  These lessons shape their lives. 

In those days, preachers worth their salt attended seminary.  Soon, the honeymoon is over and the bride teaches in a big city school and the groom attempts to master Greek and Hebrew.  Life fills with school and friends and eventually another country church on the weekend.  As the years pass, they watch friends welcome little ones into the world … and they keep teaching, studying and preaching. 

Tests and doctors, questions and fears follow.  Years rolled on.  The world keeps moving.  Soon, something shifts.  Questionnaires and case workers, hopes and dreams develop.  Weeks and months roll together.  The world keeps moving with a skip in its step. 

On Monday, February 10th, 1969 a baby boy bounces into the world loved more deeply than anyone will ever know.  On this day, a young, unnamed, single college student gives the world a lesson in love.  She loves that boy enough to place him in the hands of a nurse and drive away. 

On Wednesday, February 12, the young couple sits down for a birthday meal.  It is their 7th celebration together and still the chairs around the table sit empty.  The phone rings.  A yell ensues.  A baby boy waits for their love.  The bride exclaims with tears in her eyes, “It’s my best birthday gift ever!”

On Friday, February 14, the couple receives a true Valentine’s Day miracle … a deep, intense love moves into their lives with the arrival of a gurgling, smelly, baby boy.  Love invested becomes love received. 

As the adopted son, I have been captured by love in so many ways:  by the sacrificial love of my birth mother, by the invested love of my parents, and by the never doubted knowledge that I am loved. 

Jesus describes God with similar language.  “God loved the world so much, God gave God’s one and only son, so that whoever believes in him, will not perish, but shall receive eternal life.” I grasp this love because it captured me the moment I arrived in the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen  

Monday, October 26, 2015


Series:  Believe Week 7:  Humanity
Scripture:  Philemon

Date:  October 25, 2015

When I was a little boy, one of my favorite children’s books was called - Fortunately and unfortunately.  The book followed a young boy name Ned who fortunately received an invitation to come to a surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately, the party would be held in Florida and Ned was in NY.  Fortunately, a friend loaned him and airplane.  Unfortunately, the motor exploded.  You get the picture.  Unfortunately, looking back on the book now, I can’t believe all of the harrowing circumstances Ned found himself in.  Fortunately, for me – as a child – I loved each page. 

[Here's the short book if you want to read it too.  :)

          This week as we have been reading our Believe scripture passages on building a biblical theology of Humanity – the back and forth rhythm of my favorite childhood book came back to me.  Here’s why:  I am stuck by discrepancy between how we see other people and how God sees people.  We want God to see certain way and others differently.  These discrepancies point a mirror into our lives and make confront today’s Key Question:  How does God see us?
          Join me for a few moments with a little back and forth between how we see people and how God sees people as we examine – poke and prod our theology of humanity.

 We See:  Evil, desperate, sinful people
We read the papers and watch the news and see stories of mass murder and school shootings.  We are horrified by the actions of humans in war.  We see people denying God’s existence, living sinful, damaging and corrupt lives and wonder what could God ever do with them.  What value are they?

Fortunately, God Sees:  all Humans created as in God’s image.
          In every sinful, desperate, evil person – God sees a man or woman wonderfully knitted, formed and loved into God’s image.  Genesis 1:26 says:  Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image and likeness. And let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the tame animals, over all the earth, and over all the small crawling animals on the earth.”
          Each person on this planet is created for a purpose, loved and valued by the Lord God. 
On the opposite side: 

We see:  Good, hard-working neighbors.
          You know, these are kind of people who don’t steal, don’t make loud noise, look after your dog when you are gone, vote regularly, bring casseroles when you are sick, work hard to make a living.  We see these friends and think – they have done everything right.  They are good people.  Surely, they are the kind of people who God desires.

Unfortunately,God Sees:  Sinners fallen short of the glory of God.
          We want to make people’s outward appearances and actions take the place of their inward relationship with God.  Yet, while God sees a person created and formed in God’s image – God also sees each person’s sin of betrayal and it separates them from the life God designs for them. 
          Romans 3:23 says:  Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.
          I love this phrase that has stuck with me most of my life:  the ground at the cross is level.  While we see good people and bad people – God just sees people, God’ creation.  And while we want to set some people above others – God never does.  It is only through the cross that we come into a relationship with the Lord.   
When we are subdividing people – creating our own version of the caste system, we often base our theology of humanity on our own world view.  For example: 

We see:  A broken world divided by barriers of language and borders.
          As much as we hate it, we each carry our own prejudices about people in the world. We divide people by the languages they speak or don’t speak, the ways they dress, the color of their skin, the depth of their education, or the borders that they cross.  We fear people who are different.  We break people down by stereotypes and titles.  We call other human people illegal and we loosen our tongues and forget that the words we use actually describe people loved by God.  Our way of looking at the world becomes the only way to look at the world.

Fortunately, God Sees:  A unified, wonderful world where all are loved.
          Recently, I have been following the photographs of astronaut Scott Kelley who is living for a year on the International Space Station.  Each day, Captain Kelly posts pictures to his Instagram of pictures of the earth – from North America, Europe, South America, Asia.  Unlike our common maps, these pictures show no borders or countries.  We see beautiful mountains and rivers and deltas, cities lighting up the night, and this week a monster hurricane.  I imagine this is more like how God sees the world:  a unified, wonderful creation full of his most prized creation – you and me. 
          The Gospel writer John puts it this way:  “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.”  This was our memory verse for this week.  The verse demonstrates how God’s love breaks down the barriers of our broken, divided world.

Unfortunately, when we see a divided world, we cannot see beyond it.  For example, often:

We see:  Ornery, hard to love people who are against us.
          You know what I mean.  These are the people in our families that drive us nuts.  The employee that continues to complain to the boss about us.  The neighbor who called the police on our kids.  The girl at school who we thought was our friend who told our most private secret to people at school.  The friend who has bi-polar disease or the addict who has burned all of his bridges.  We don’t have to go too far to see people by what they do and how they treat other people. 

Fortunately, God sees:  God’s children.
          As prickly and ornery and spiteful as some people can be in our lives – God still sees them as his children.  God’s creation.  And God still calls us to treat them in the same way we would treat the people who are kinder and friendlier and easier to be around.  Jesus says this in the Sermon on the Mount:  “But I say to you who are listening, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,”
          God’s Way in the world takes our ways of looking at the other people and turns us on our heads.  Here’s one more example.  

We see:  Brilliant and gifted people who have achieved success in politics, business, and entertainment.
          If you are like me – these people stand out in the world for all that they have achieved.  We gawk at and look up to these people.  We get giddy when we come into their presence.  I’ve not been in the room with too many celebrities, but when I have I know that the intensity in the room changes.  We say – “hey, do you know who is here?”  We might ask for an autograph or a selfie these days.  We increase our standing by being close to one of these brilliant, successful people as we tell our stories of encounter. 

Fortunately, God sees people differently.

God Sees:  Little children with crusty faces, active bodies and curious minds. 
          In a lesson on greatness, Jesus brings a first century, child into the middle of his teaching circle and uses the child as an object lesson for greatness in the kingdom of God.  He says in Matthew 18:3:
Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you must change and become like litt   le children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
          This is how Jesus views humanity – not by what we can achieve or provide or the extra ability of giftedness that we have – but through our humble ability to trust completely in the Lord of Creation. 
          How does God see us?  God sees us his wonderful creation formed in God’s image who have sinned and need Jesus.  God sees us as one humanity, loved deeply in spite of our ornery natures. And God values us not by what we accomplish but by the faith we exhibit.  This is theology preaches and changes lives and churches and communities. 

A practical theology of humanity can be found in one of the shortest books in the Bible – Paul’s letter to Philemon.  In this short book, Paul challenges all of us to see each other – not as we see – but as God sees.

The simple story is this.  Paul is in prison in Rome.  In prison he meets a runaway slave name Onesimus.  Through the friendship of Paul and the grace of God, Onesimus commits to follow Jesus.  Paul loves Onesimus and wants him to serve as an associate with him in the service of the gospel, but he had neither a moral nor a legal right to retain him.
Legally, Onesimus belongs to a Christian man named Philemon in Colossae.  Philemon is an active believer and spiritual leader.    He hosts a church in his home.  Paul knows Philemon – most likely because Philemon heard Paul preach in Ephesus. 

The theological question that faces us faces these three men:  How does God see us? 

To Philemon - Onesimus is a runaway slave, a piece of property who most likely stole from his master when he left.

To Paul, Onesimus is a brother in Christ.  The barriers between slave and Roman citizen have been broken by the love of Jesus.  So – Paul sends Onesimus back to Colossae with this letter for Philemon. 

I, Paul, an old man now and also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, 10 am pleading with you for my child Onesimus, who became my child while I was in prison. 11 In the past he was useless to you, but now he has become useful for both you and me.

Paul is challenging Philemon to see Onesimus no longer through his human eyes – as a slave – but through God eyes, as a useful child of God. 

[he is]16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a loved brother. I love him very much, but you will love him even more, both as a person and as a believer in the Lord.

When Onesimus shows back up at Philemon’s door with this letter from Paul - Unfortunately, from the human perspective, nothing has changed.  Onesimus is still a runaway piece of property and a thief.

Fortunately, from God’s perspective everything has changed. Onesimus is no longer a slave, he is a brother in Christ.

When we begin to release our way of seeing and receive God’s eyesight, today’s key idea becomes a bold experience of God’s grace and glory. 

Key Idea:  I believe all people are loved by God and need Jesus Christ as their Savior.

I am convinced when we allow this belief to settle from our heads to hearts – it will have the greatest impact in how we live our lives as any of these beliefs.  The virtue of gentleness will no longer exist in patches around our lives – but will settle into a new way of existence on our daily living.  What a glorious and marvelous day that will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Morphing: The Goal of the Spiritual Live

Romans 12:2
New Revised Standard Version
Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Phillips Translation
Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

The Message
Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Many of you know that Marcia, Sydney and I took Sarah – our oldest to college this week.  Like some of you, we unloaded a pile of belongings, decorated a dorm room, and left her on a strange and beautiful college campus – Samford University in Birmingham, AL.  One benefit of college is that now that Sarah is 18 and on her own – I no longer is obligated to pay her $1 every time I use her name in a sermon illustration.  We just ring it up to the cost of growing up in a preacher’s home.

On the way home yesterday, my mind began creating montages of her growing up years. I thought of the many good things I had done as her dad – picking her up at school, coaching a little league softball team, and traveling to every out of town Raider football game. 

There were other images, too, though, darker images.  I remembered the moments I failed as her dad:  The nights I lost my temper, yelled too loud and made her cry and the days I let being a pastor come before being a dad.

If I allow myself to be honest – I realize I had a pretty high expectation of being her dad and most days – reality never caught up.  Even in the great joy of being a dad, this discrepancy creates disappointment.  I call it the disappointment gap – the gap I feel between expectation and reality.  What I want to do and what I actually do.

This disappointment gap includes much more than my skills as a parent – it covers every
area of my life:  my marriage, my work as pastor, my spiritual life, my life as a friend, my social media life, my prayer life. There is much that I want to do or not want to do and it seems I do the opposite.  I live constantly with a disappointment gap.  And – if you allow yourself to go there – you do too. 

Some of our disappointments are trivial – I need to get in better physical health or do a better job on my finances.

Some of our disappointments are neurotic – concerned about the expectations other people have for me. 

Some of our disappointments, though, run much deeper and darker.  So deep we will never share them. 

We stand in good company with our disappointment gap.  Listen to the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:14 as he talks about the power of sin in our lives:  “In fact, I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.”  Paul had certain expectations of what he would do and not do – and reality set in and he did the opposite. 

We do the same thing in our spiritual lives – we have certain expectations like – I will forgive this person, I will become a person of prayer, I will invite that person to church, I will offer to pray for my co-worker – and then reality sets in and we live in the disappointment gap. 

What do we do with our disappointment gaps?

For some of us – we have learned to rationalize our disappointment gap.  John Ortberg in The Life You’ve always Wanted, calls this the Popeye approach.  Many of us will remember these old cartoons – or maybe the 1980’s movie - about an old crusty sailor named Popeye The Sailor Man.  When Popeye was frustrated or wasn’t sure what to do or felt inadequate, he would simply say, “I yam what I yam.” 

“Popeye wasn’t a sophisticated guy.  He had never been to therapy and was woefully out of touch with his shadow side and his inner child.  He didn’t have much education.  He knew who he was:  a simple, pipe-smoking, Olive Oyl-loving sailor man and he wasn’t pretending to be anything else.”  He “owned his story.”  Sound like anyone you know?

Ortberg notes a bit of sadness in Popeye’s expression, though.  He offered this expression as an explanation of his short comings with nonsense that he could ever grow or change.  He was saying – ‘Don’t get your hopes up.  Don’t expect too much.  I yam what I’m yam and that’s all that I yam.” 

I bet you have said those same words too – I know that I have.  “I am what I am and that’s all that I am – I will never be able to change.”  We get caught in the struggle between our disappointment gap and God’s hope. (John Ortberg, The Life You've Always Wanted:  Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2002),14).

God desires a better way out of our disappointment gap.

If fact, God has designed a better way.  When we are experiencing life in our disappointment gap – we have dis-appointed God – we have removed ourselves from the life God appointed for us.  We have refused to let God be God.  Acknowledging God is the first step. 

          Do you remember the name God gives to Moses at the burning bush?  Back in Exodus, Moses has run away to the desert to escape.  Then, one day, God comes to Moses in this great burning bush – a tree burning, yet, not being consumed.  God calls Moses back to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of slavery.  The task seems too enormous and Moses gets a little free with God and asks:

          “Who are you?  What if I go to the people and tell them the God of our fathers has sent me, and they ask me his name – what should I tell them?” Do you remember what God says?

          “I am what I am.”  It’s the powerful word in Hebrew we name YAWEH.  Literally Yahweh means:  “I was what I was.”  I am what I am.  I will be what I will be. 

          While we may struggle with a life of disappointment gaps – rationalizing our disappointment to God and ourselves – “I yam what I yam,” God gives it right back to us:  “No – I am what I am.  There is no situation, no sin, no mistake, and no disappointment that is too big for me.  Get your hopes up.  You know me.  I yam what I yam!”

          Get this into your head:  God created you as a great piece of art.  And now God calls us to become the person God had in mind when God originally designed us to be. 
          Soren Kierkegaard has this wonderful prayer.  It simple says, “And now Lord, with your help, I shall become myself.”  Do you remember God’s Name?  I am who I am!  This is the hope in the midst of the disappointment gap!

          During college, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world – St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. It is filled with some of the most beautiful pieces of art in the world.  In one enclave towards the back sits a piece of renaissance art called the Pieta by Michelangelo.  Even as one unschooled in art – this piece of art spoke to me and took my breath away.  It’s a marble statue of an anguished Mary holding the crucified Christ.  I stood staring at the statue for several moments taking in this scene.

          What I didn’t know was that in 1972, a fanatic nationalist rushed the masterpiece and began smashing it with a sledgehammer.  Although there was much damage, the Vatican artists restored it to near perfect condition.  The damaged piece of art became beautiful again. 

God wants to do the same thing in each of our lives.  Each of us are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God – and yet, our sin has taken a sledgehammer to that image.  God is determined to overcome the defacing that sin has caused of his image in us. 

          God does not want the person that we are now to be the end of our story.  God desires for us to become something more.

          Let me invite you to take answer a simple multiple choice question.  It’s on your sermon guide and here on the screen.
“The purpose of my spiritual life is:
       To Be Good
       To learn about God
       To go to church
       To serve others
       To make a difference in the world.
       All of the Above
       None of the Above

Now - Listen again to our scripture passage Romans 12:2 (MSG):

“Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out”

God’s goal for our spiritual life is:  Human Transformation – changed from the inside out.

          Each of these answers to the question are good answers – yet, God wants something deeper and longer lasting.  God wants to change you – from the inside out. 

          The Greek word used in this passage in Romans 12:2 is Metamorphoo:  It means to change into another form, to transform, to transfigure – from the inside out.  This greek word became our English word metamorphous which we use to describe the transition that takes place between a caterpillar and a butterfly.
This is the Greek word translated as transfigure when Jesus goes up the mountain with this disciples and the disciples see Jesus for whom he really is.  Matthew describes it this way:  “Jesus "was transfigured [metamorphoo] before them; his face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.”

          Paul says in Romans – this is what God wants to do to us.  “Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed [metamorphoo]  by the renewing of your minds.”

          The image of Jesus lies dormant inside each one of us – and like a beautiful butterfly emerging from its cocoon, God wants to slowly, sometimes painfully, bring that image out in each of us.  God wants us to become something new.  In Corinthians, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

          God desires the transformation of you and me – from lives lived in the disappointment gap – to lives lived mirroring the face of Jesus in the world. 

          Do you remember the tv craze back in the 1990’s called Mighty Morphin Power Rangers?  The show was an unlikely hit – originally produced on a very low budget in Japan and badly dubbed into English.  The show and its characters continue to have their supporters – I still see Power Ranger costumes at Halloween and I learned this week there will be a new movie arriving in theaters in 2017.

          The key to the shows appeal was the character’s ability to morph.  Ordinarily, they were normal adolescences, but as needed they would access a power beyond themselves to become martial arts heroes for justice.  Their rallying cry in moments of crises was “It’s morphing time!” and they would transform with the ability to do extraordinary things.  Since then, the word “morph” has become a part of the American vocabulary (The Life You've Always Wanted, 19).
          In reality, we all desire deep down to be able to morph, to change from the inside out, to be transformed.

          Here’s the Gospel for you and me:  The possibility of transformation lies within each of us.  This is the essence of hope.  Ortberg says this:  “We are pregnant with possibilities for spiritual growth and moral beauty so great that they cannot be adequately described as anything less than the formation of Christ in our very lives.”  Wow!

          The goal of the spiritual life is our transformation from a life defined by our disappointment gap into an expression of Jesus.  Jesus wants to morph you and me!
          And when our morphing happens, we don’t just find ourselves doing the things of Jesus, we find ourselves wanting to do them.  We start becoming the kind of person Jesus wants us to be.  

I would like for us to learn a new litany to use in the coming days, weeks, months and years.  It points us to the heart and goal of our spiritual life and the life of our church.  It’s simply this: 
Pastor:  It’s Morphing Time
People:  We shall morph indeed!

          Let’s try it. 
When we morph into the image of Jesus – the world sees the changes and responses. 
Last week, I spoke about the shifting of our world. I challenged us to not just be afraid, angry, or apathetic – but instead to approach this new world with the excitement of a new adventure in faith.  The only way this makes any sense is when we are morphing more and more into the image of Jesus – as we begin to think, act, and become like Jesus.

When we do this – the world will be changed.  When we are transformed, we live by different rules – Kingdom living – than the surrounding culture.  Early Christians lived this way, attracting attention from outsiders and ultimately won many of them over the ways of Jesus.  Here is one report from a Christian sympathizer inside the Roman World:

“[The Christians] marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.  They share a common table, but not a common bed.  They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.  The love all men and are persecuted by all.  They are unknown and condemned.  They are put to death and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich.  They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything" (Phillip Yancey, Vanishing Grace (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2014), 73).

When we morph into the image of Jesus – everything changes. 
Jesus desires us to morph – he wants to destroy the disappointment gap.
Our family needs us to morph – they want the best for us.
The world needs us to morph – they need to see Jesus.

What will you do?
Pastor:  It’s Morphing Time
People:  We shall morph indeed!

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Resident Aliens: Being Christian in a Secular World

Preached on August 9, 2015
Scripture:  John 4:1-6

            Our world has shifted – Like a giant tectonic plate sliding Western on the Pacific rim of fire. 
For William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, authors of the book Resident Aliens the first earthquake in this shift happened on a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina.  On that Sunday, in defiance of the state’s time honored blue laws which stated no businesses should be open on Sundays – maintaining the Christian Sabbath day - the Fox Theater opened.  The authors’ state:  “On that Sunday seven us – regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Bumcombe Street Church – made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out of the backdoor and join John Wayne at the Fox.”  On that night Greenville served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church.  There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides.  The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the worldview for the young.  In 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon.  Resident Aliens:  A provocative Christian Assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong, Nashville:  Abington Press, 2014, 15-16). 
            The Supreme Court ruling in June providing the right of same-sex couples to marry represented the closing bell for our Christian majority culture – completing a new landscape in which we live. 
For over 1700 years we have lived under the umbrella of Christendom – a world where Christians held power.  This world – constructed by Emperor Constantine by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire - has collapsed.  It has been dying for decades. 
All the while, American Protestants – traditional Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians - have plodded wearily along as if nothing has been changing.  “Like an aging Southern mistress – living in a decaying mansion on the edge of town, bankrupt and penniless, house decaying around her but acting as if her family still controlled the city – our theologians and church leaders have acted as if we were still in charge, as if the old arrangements were still valid” (Resident Aliens, 29).  Since I left seminary in 1997, stories of ministry in Post-modern America resembling that in the First Century Roman world have circulated.  Like many, I closed my eyes and hoped the prognosticators were wrong.  That day is here.  
            Let there be no doubt - We live in a secular world - Even in the religion soaked south.  No matter what indicators you use, polls, church attendance numbers, decrease in baptisms – it is obvious that the people in the United States who identify themselves as Christians has decreased sharply.  Pollsters call this decrease the rise of the nones – individuals who claim no religion – who mark “none” on their survey responses.  Families simply call this decrease our sons, daughters and grandkids.  Our Baptist children raised in our church nurseries, suckled on GA and RA’s, and toted in church buses around the south have examined the experience with faith they found in our churches and left wanting for more. 
Christian Response
The result is a world that feels normal – yet, when we look around everything has shifted.  And we are left with the choice for how we as followers of Jesus will live in this secular world.
            As I listen to preachers and news shows, watch my Facebook newsfeed and talk to friends – I notice three common, Christian responses to this new, secular world.
First – there is fear. We fear change and all that it entails.   And this world shattering shift is one of the greatest changes in any of our lifetimes.  When things change rapidly around us – fear leaps out of the hedges, grabs our throats and won’t let us go.  We begin to fear anything and anybody that is different – different points of view, different colors and kinds of people, different ways of doing things.  Fear has becomes the lens by which many of us view the world. 
Often, this fear materializes as the second Christian response to a secular world:  anger.  Anger is the most visible way Christians respond to our loss of the Christian majority influence in our culture.  We write or share angry posts on social media.  We listen to angry commentators on TV and radio.  And if we wait long enough in a Walmart line or at the barber shop or even venture to read a comments section on an online news article – we will witness anger spring to life. 
And then there is one more common Christian response to our secular world:  apathy.  Apathy is the ostrich with its head in the ground; it’s the grown adult with his eyes shut, hands on his ears, babbling to keep from hearing or seeing what is around him.  Apathy withdraws itself from the world – hoping to outlive or ignore the changes happening all around us.  Honestly, some of us have a better chance of outliving this shift – withdrawing into our homes – but for most of us – living in this new, secular world cannot be stopped. 

Gospel Response
            Fear, anger and apathy are the common Christian responses our secular world – yet, they are not the biblical response.  In our humanness, we exhibit fear, anger and apathy – yet, the Gospel communicates a clearly different Christian response to the secular world. 
            The teachings and actions of Jesus – the author and perfector of our faith – invite us to a new way living in a secular world.  The authors Willimon and Hauerwas building off of 1 Peter 2 name for this new existence for us.  Simply, they invite us to be Resident Aliens in a secular world.  Peter writes:  “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.”  As resident Aliens – we reside in the world.  We are citizens of the United States, the state of Georgia and Habersham County.  Yet – while we are residents of this place – as followers of Jesus we are not of this world – we are aliens and exiles – citizens of another kingdom demands to be our first priority.  As long as we live on earth – we will never feel like true locals. 
            Learning to live as resident aliens in a community that feels so familiar and yet so different requires us to listen more intently to and follow Jesus. 
            Look again at John 4:3:  3”Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.4 But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar.” 
            Traditionally, religious Jews like Jesus never went through Samaria.  To get from Judea in the south to Galilee and the North – religious Jews went around the region called Samaria which sits in the geographical center of Palestine.    Imagine for a moment that Georgians hated Tennesseans besides just on one Saturday in the fall.  We hated them to such an extent – we never wanted to step foot in Tennessee – so to go North to Kentucky we always traveled through Virginia or Arkansas – it was out of the way, but never saw a Tennessean. 
            In this passage – the opening verses of the passage on the Samaritan woman at the well – Jesus makes the radical decision to go through Samaria and stop in the Samaritan village Sychar. 
            “In Jesus’s day Samaritans lived just down the road – just over the state line - from their cousins the Jews.  Despite having much in common – language and religious practices especially – the two groups could not get along.  They were hostile to each other.  Like estranged family members, the nursed grudges.  To the Jews, the Samaritans were heretics” (Phillip Yancey, Vanishing Grace:  Whatever Happened to the Good News? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014, 25).  John reports later in this passage that Jews did not associate with Samaritans – they didn’t talk to them, didn’t share things with them, and would rather see them die than help them in any way.  For the Jews of the time – there was no racial slur worse than being called – “A Samaritan.”  You – Tennessean!
            In John 4 Jesus intentionally goes to Samaria to teach us a lesson about how to live in this world. 
            Tim Stafford in an article in Christianity Today said that often times Christians compare life in our secular world with the Jewish exile to Babylon in the 6th century BC – we stuck in a culture that trumpets values hostile to our faith.  Actually, Stafford argues – living in the modern secular world of the West is less like living in Babylon and more like living in a modern Samaria.  “The problem,” Stafford says, “is not that our religion in America is strange to those who are secularist – the problem is that our religion in familiar.  Like Samaritans and Jews, Christians and NonChristians in America have a partly shared worldview (based on Western Traditions including the bible) and a shared point of origin … We are familiar with what each other believes.  We’ve suspicious of one another.  So we start off with a grudge” (Vanishing Grace, 25).
            If living in Secular America is the similar to living in modern Samaria then we need to pay attention to what Jesus says about Samaria.
            Not only does Jesus intentionally go to Samaria in John 4 – to the woman he meets there she is the first to acknowledges Jesus as Messiah. 
            In Luke 10, Jesus tells one of his most remembered and powerful parables to his Jewish followers.  In this story, a man gets beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die.  Two Jewish religious leaders pass him by.  Yet, it is a business man who stops to help.  Do you remember where he was from?  Yes – Samaria.  Jesus chooses to make the Samaritan good, the hero of the story.  What does this say to us about how we respond to our secular world? 
            In another passage in Acts 1:8 – Jesus gives his final word on Samaria.  Jesus says – “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We’ve quoted and preached on this powerful com-missioning passage all of our lives.  Have we ever realized – Jesus is sending us as missionary to our secular world – which causes us so much fear, anger and apathy?  The story of Jonah feels comes to mind, doesn’t it? 
            We don’t need to assume this world shifting assignment came easily to the first disciples.  In Acts - Phillip begins preaching in Samaria and the Holy Spirit breaks out.  The church in Jerusalem questions it and really doesn’t want to believe it.  So they send their leaders – Peter and John to witness it. They return testifying to God’s amazing grace.
            As Resident Aliens in modern Samaria, Jesus invites us to lay down our fear, anger and apathy at the foot of the cross.  Instead – Jesus invites us to see the time in which we live as the most amazing, incredible and exciting opportunities for living and proclaiming the Gospel.  Willimon and Hauerwas make this powerful claim:  “The demise of our Christian culture as a prop for the church is not a death to lament.  It is an opportunity to celebrate … American Christians are at last free to be faithful in ways that make being a Christian today an exciting adventure” (Resident Aliens, 18). 
            This is how we live as Christians in a secular world – with a spirit of excitement anticipating the moments God breaks out in the world in new and fresh ways. 
            Moving from fear, anger, and apathy to joy, celebration and excitement does not come easily.  Living as a Christian in this secular world invites us to make three intentional responses.

1.      Ask the right theological questions. 
Life in modern Samaria requires us to learn to think theologically.  We cannot just say we believe what our parents believe.  We can’t just spout a list of essential beliefs.  Theologians in the 20th century were concerned about apologetics – trying desperately to get a secular world to make intellectual sense of our Christian narrative.  Jesus didn’t try to convince people to think differently.  Jesus taught so that people would live differently – be different (Resident Aliens, 24).  This is the key reason I am certain that our BELIEVE experience starting on September 13 will begin revival in our church.  The purpose of this experience will not be to brainwash our church to believe a certain set of principles.  This experience invites us to move our theological beliefs from our head to our hearts so that we live differently.  When we trust what we say we believe - we will thrive in modern Samaria. 
2. Develop spiritual disciplines. 
This summer, I have reflected on how I can best lead you – my church – to thrive in this new Samaria? I keep coming back to the practices of the early first century Christians.  What spiritual practices did they do that gave them power I in a secular world?  What kind of prayer life was necessary to thrive in ancient Jerusalem with your neighbors and relatives trying to kill you?  What kind of worship was required in Corinth to break through the glitz of the Roman Empire?  If we are going to thrive in the 21st Century – we must invest our time and energies reproducing these practices in our lives.  In our Believe experience we will ask – how can we act like Jesus?

3. Our final biblical response to a secular world is simply this:  Offer water to a thirsty world. 
While we may feel threatened or fearful or angry or apathetic – remember – the world around us is desperately thirsty.  Phillip Yancy in his book – Vanishing Grace, which I will be teaching on Wednesdays this fall – says this about our lives in modern Samaria:  We must become dispenser of grace - “utilizing the weapons of grace which means treating even our enemies with love and respect” (Vanishing Grace, 26).  When the Pharisees called Jesus “A Samaritan and demon possessed – he did not protest the racial slur.  Instead – he went through Samaria, made a Samaritan a hero in a parable and sent his apostles to preach the good news IN Samaria TO Samaritans. 
            Our secular world is thirsty.  And Jesus is the Living Water.  Henri Nouwen invites us to start living in secular America – modern Samaria – with a prayer on our lips.  It is simply this: 
“God, help me to see others not as enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people.  And give me courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst” (Vanishing Grace, 26).
            What if, instead of getting fearful and rushing to judgement or getting angry and bristling with self- defense or being apathetic and hiding our heads in the sand we simply prayed each morning:  Lord:  let me see your world as thirsty people, and teach me how to best offer your living water to those around me.         
What difference would this prayer make in your life?  What difference would this prayer make in your attitude?  What difference would this prayer make in our church, in your home, in your workplace, and even in our nation?         
            As we ask the right theological questions and develop spiritual disciplines and offer water to our thirsty world – God’s world will open up to us in new ways.
Yes, we will still be resident aliens.  So - Let us rejoice for now the fun really starts!  Thanks be to God.   Amen. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Trinity: Holy Spirit Arrives

Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21
Preached on May 31, 2015

Movement 1
            The great sadness consumed Mack.  It slowly “tightened around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constrictor, squeezing liquid tears from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir.”  Everyone saw the great sadness on his face – day after day – and no one blamed him. 
            The story of Missy’s disappearance is unfortunately not unlike others told too often.  It happened during the Labor Day weekend.  Mack decided to take his three younger children on a final camping trip of the summer.  
            On the last day of the trip, Mack looked up to see two of his children canoeing in the lake.  Suddenly, their canoe overturned and they were in the water.  Instinctively, Mack left Missy at the campsite and dove into the water to save his children.  When he returned – kids safe – no one could find Missy.  She was gone.
            Anguished weeks passed before a piece of her clothing was found in an old shack out in the forest.  The great sadness tightened quickly.
            The story of Mack and the shack, however, is more than a story of death and sadness – it is story of God’s movement in the world and in one particular man.  When bad things happen – we wonder is God at work?  Why would this happen?  In the story - Mack meets God as Trinity in the Shack.  It sounds quite fantastical, doesn’t it?  Yet, this is where faith centers into our lives. 
            William Young, author of The Shack, says it this way: 
“There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational.  It doesn’t mean that it is actually irrational, but it surely is not rational.  Perhaps there is suprarationality:  reason beyond the normal definitions of fact or data-based logic; something that only makes sense if you can see a bigger picture of reality.  Maybe that is where faith fits in.” 
Movement 2
            At the end of Jesus’ time on earth he ascends to heaven and invites his followers to wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive.  This event in the life of humanity transforms our understanding of God.  Jesus – God in human form, Emanuel – God with us – leaves.  The disciples are left to ponder:  how will God relate to humanity and the world now that Jesus is gone?  We might ask:  How does God act in a world governed by science and natural laws and rational thought?
            This question has never s more important a question that it is today.  “No period in history has been in greater need of God’s present activity in the world and a comprehensive and integrated spiritual vision of the future and destiny of planet earth than the present.”
            And yet – for many of us – our theology of God’s Spirit alive in the world remains stunted.  Lora Gross in her introduction to the Holy Spirit in A New Handbook of Christian Theology says “The Christian church’s theology has been glaringly deficient in setting forth a detailed doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”
            The charismatic movement of the 70’s and 80’s that swept through so many communities and Baptist churches seemed to steal the life from a healthy theology of the Holy Spirit.  We let our charismatic friends have the Spirit and the gift of speaking in tongues and we looked the other way and focused on the things we could understand … and control.
            A rational theology that takes out the Spirit makes sense in a rational world.  The idea that something of absolutely irrationality might take place never crosses our mind.
            In the Shack, Mack inexplicably receives a typed note inviting him back to the woods – to the Shack – from a person named Papa – the name his wife uses for God.  Without knowing why – except that the Great Sadness drove him – Mack goes back to the Shack – the scene of the crime.  It is there when he opens the door that he meets God face to face – God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And if you ever want to have your preconceptions of God blow away – you will simply need to read the book – I won’t spoil the surprise. 

Movement 3
            Imagine your surprise, though, if you were in Jerusalem 2000 years ago for Pentecost – the Festival of Weeks.  Imagine seeing a crowd of poor, yet ecstatic Galileans gathered in the street.  You might have expected a disturbance when you realized they were a small group of Jesus followers.  If you saw them that night on the narrow streets of Jerusalem you would have instantly known they were on fire.  They were talking, but they were talking in a very unusual way. Their passionate conviction conveyed the power of their message even to faithful Jews like yourself. 
            As ecstatic as their speech was – you are surprised you understood it.  Faithful Jews like yourself from every known place around the world understand them too – Persians and Romans, Egyptians and Greeks.  Something else, more important than language, though, catches your attention.  This group of people are fearless.  They stand up and say what they want to say, even though they know that their words might mean death.  And above all – they are amazingly effective.  People listen to them.  Thousands of people are moved by their words of the wondrous works of God.  You look around and see people deciding to follow Jesus too.
            Acts 2 describes a Divine Disturbance.  The Holy Spirit breaks out into the world at Pentecost in a new way.  The world as we know it has never been the same. 
            In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is active as well as a vital energy of the divine nature at work.  We first see the Spirit at work in the first chapter of the first book.  The opening creation song of Genesis 1 says: 
            “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”  The Spirit of God brings order to the chaos and life to the world – it serves as the creative and vitalizing force of the world.   
            Here in Acts 2 – we see a new manifestation – a new look – for the same Spirit of God. 
            These early followers of Jesus felt the energy of the continuous living activity of Jesus and called it by the name of Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit was the link between the church and its head – Jesus.  The enthusiasm we witness in Jerusalem on Pentecost was actually there became theirs – the phrase Holy Spirit was their interpretation of their experience.  God was alive in the world – disturbing everything they knew. 
            In the Shack, Mack has an encounter with the Holy Spirit.  Using the female designation found in the Hebrew word for Spirit in the Old Testament, Mack describes the Holy Spirit this way:  “Light seemed to radiate through her and then reflect her presence in multiple places at once.  Her nature was rather ethereal, full of dynamic shades and hues of color and motion.  “No wonder so many people are a little unnerved at relating to her,” Mack said.  “She obviously is not a being who is predictable.”
            An unpredictable power breaking out into the world – this is the Holy Spirit. 

Movement 4
            Too often, though, the unpredictability of the Spirit gets in our way.  We don’t want unpredictability.  We want God in a way that we can understand, manage and control. 
Craig Van Gelder in his book, The Ministry of the Missional Church, describes the world we build to rationally describe and control God as a Closed Universe.  This world is closed to anything that cannot be explained through rational objectivity.  Our closed universe was built by the scientific world as a result of the Enlightenment.  For our electrical engineers – this is as close to understanding what you do as I can – a closed universe is a like a closed circuit.  In a close circuit – the electrical current moves predictability through a series of wires, switches and lights.  The closed circuit controls the power and the results are predictable.   
The same is true in a close universe.  In our closed universe – we get predictable God.  In our closed universe – we hold God back.  In our closed universe – we don’t welcome divine disturbances. 
Yet, the biblical record and the testimony of the saints through the centuries says we don’t live in a closed universe – we live in an open universe.  In an Open Universe the world is open to the movement to the Spirit of God. 
As such, the Spirit is the power that sustains the world and human life at the same time that it moves the world and human life to transcend themselves in concrete ways. 
The Spirit at work in the world is more than just a faith in the gap theology.  Faith in the gap theology says that we whenever we encounter something we don’t understand in the natural world – we name it God.  Science has worked over the last 500 years to disclaim the faith in the gap theology – from the fact that the earth goes around the sun, the earth is round and to evolution.  The Spirit of God is more than just a way to describe the things we don’t understand – the Holy Spirit is more dynamic and powerful than our unanswered questions. 
Instead, The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in the world.  This presence places the power, meaning and purposes of God into creation and especially into humanity.  Because of God’s presence – the Holy Spirit is active in nature, active in history, and active in life.  This is good News!

Movement 5: 
            The Good News of Acts 2 is this:  The Holy Spirit breaks out of the obstacles of our lives for the sake of the world. 
            The Holy Spirit is breaking out in the day to day moments of our lives.  The Holy Spirit is breaking out in the daily work of our church.  The Holy Spirit is breaking out in our families.  The Holy Spirit is breaking out in our jobs.  The Holy Spirit is breaking out in our mission work – as we will see when our mission team returns from Santa Emilia, Nica.
            The testimony of the first Christians is that this breaking out into the world is for a purpose:  for the sake of the world.  The followers of Jesus don’t look around the upper room amazed to just take in the breaking out of the Holy Spirit around them.  The breaking out causes a disturbance in their lives.  The breaking out pushes them out into the world beyond the house.  The breaking out opens their mouths and forces them to preach the Good News of Jesus to the world.  
These are the words Peter preaches:
‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy.  Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.  18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants—men and women alike—    and they will prophesy.”

            When the Holy Spirit breaks out – our lives and the lives around us are transformed forever!
            That’s what happens to Mack in the Shack.  In a most mysterious way – a way that never makes complete sense, God breaks through the Great Sadness of Mack’s life.  The Spirit of God breaks forth in a dynamic and powerful way to bring healing and meaning to his hurt and pain.  The questions of why did this happen and what else could I have done never get answered.  Instead, into the mysteries The Spirit of God breaks forth and his life is transformed.  Praise be to God!
The same can be true in your life.
            The Holy Spirit is not a passive actor on stage waiting for the signal.  The Holy Spirit is a divine disturbance moving in ways that will both astound and confound us.  Would we have it any other way?
            Today, right now - The Holy Spirit seeks to break through the obstacles of your life to bring healing to your hurt – to bring meaning to your life.  What obstacles stand in the way?  What facades have you built to keep God in your own closed universe – free from anything you don’t understand?  What excuses have you made to God to keep God at bay?  What portraits of God have you painted in your head that limit God’s dynamic ability to transform your life?
            The story of the disciples at Pentecost invite us to experience God in a new way – to release the power of the Holy Spirit in to our lives and into our world.  The story of the Pentecost invites us to see the Holy Spirit at work in all that we do – as individuals and as a church.  Finally, the story of Pentecost invites us to release the Holy Spirit into our lives so that we may see the Kingdom of God established on earth as it is in heaven.  This is the meaning of life and faith.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.