Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 20, 2011 - What Kind of Question Is That?

February 20, 2011

John 5:1-16

Now, But Not Yet

What Kind of Question Is That?

Sometimes I get asked odd questions. Years ago, I had been visiting with a man who was terminally ill, and he had survived a good deal longer than anyone could have expected. As his condition deteriorated his family made an unusual request. His wife and son asked me one evening if I would tell him it was okay for him to stop fighting and to die. My first thought was you want me to do what? They felt that perhaps he was fighting hard to continue living for their sakes, and they knew he was very tired by his long struggle. I went into the room where he was and sat down next to his bed. At that point he was in and out of consciousness and I wasn’t sure if he was aware of my presence. But I thought he might hear me, so I started to speak to him. I told him his family knew he loved them very much, and they loved him as well. I told him they would miss him very much, but they would be okay; what they really wanted was for him to be at peace and not have to struggle any longer. And then I told him it was okay for him to let go, to not fight any longer. I assured him he was in the hands of God and then began to pray for him. As I prayed I asked that God would receive him peacefully, but I was praying another prayer to myself, and it was this – Lord, my prayer is that you receive him peacefully in your time, but if you take him as soon as I say “amen” you might as well take me too.

As we continue our series of Now, But Not Yet, we come to the story of a man Jesus heals beside the pool of Bethesda, and that story contains a very odd question asked by Jesus.

The story begins with Jesus in Jerusalem for one of the religious festivals. While in Jerusalem Jesus visits this pool, called Bethesda, and gathered around this pool was a large group of people. John says the group is made up of those who had various physical disabilities – they were blind, lame, paralyzed, and probably suffering many other ailments as well. They were waiting for the water to move, as the belief was that when the water stirred it was God coming to heal, and the first one into the pool after the waters stirred would be healed.

It must have been a sad and desperate scene. Imagine this large crowd of people waiting for the water to move and then a mad rush to be the first one into the water.

Out of all the people gathered around the pool, Jesus focuses on one man. He learns this man has been an invalid for 38 years. That’s a long time. To put that amount of time into some kind of perspective, here is some of what was going on in our world in 1973 – 38 years ago. I was 16 years old and got my driver’s license. We learned of an organization called OPEC, when an oil embargo began and prices skyrocketed and long lines formed at gas stations. Before that event, a gallon of gas cost 40 cents. The average cost of a new house was $32,500. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the year at 850. The World Trade Center in New York became the world’s tallest building. The Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. The Watergate hearings began. Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Skylab, the first space station was launched. Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. The bar code was invented. The Soviet Union still existed. And in one of the most significant events ever, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the battle of the sexes tennis match.

Thirty-eight years is a long, long time to deal with a physical ailment. You can just imagine this man’s frustration as he would work hard to get near the pool to be ready for the stirring of the water, and when the water would stir he would drag himself to the edge with hopes and dreams of healing rising within him, but someone would splash in ahead of him every time. So he settles into this cycle of hope and then dashed hopes – over and over and over again.

Then Jesus walks up to this man and asks him a question. And what a strange question it is. It is the kind of question you are taught never to ask when you take a counseling class or a workshop on how to make a pastoral visit. It’s a question that on the surface sounds insensitive and cold. Jesus asks this man – a man who had been an invalid for 38 years – do you want to get well?

Imagine the looks Jesus must have received. Not just from this man, but from the all the others who were around that pool with hopes of being healed; strange looks from his disciples; and from anyone else gathered there. The story John tells immediately before this one is a story of healing. Jesus didn’t ask that person if they wanted to be healed, so why would Jesus ask this man if he wants to get well? Do you know anyone who doesn’t want to get well when they are sick? Do you know anyone who is suffering in some way that wouldn’t hear that question as being a rather odd question?

If we look closer, it’s really not an odd question at all. It is a question that really speaks to the larger human condition – do we want to get well? Do we really want to find healing for the ailments that plague humanity; the ailments that drive the division and break apart relationships; the ailments that drive us into worry; the ailments that allow us to be trapped in unhealthy patterns that keep us from being the people God has created us to be?

I think, on a deeper level, Jesus was asking two larger questions, and those questions are directed at us all. The first question is, do you want your life to change? Again, on the surface, that question seems very easy to answer. Of course we want change to come to our lives. Ask anyone and they would no doubt say they would like some changes in their lives.

But when we really get down to what change means, maybe we really don’t want change. In helping professions there is an old saying – the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. It may still be the devil, but at least it’s one you know. What that expression means is this – we may have situations and patterns in our lives we don’t like, but we are willing to tolerate them because we have at least learned how to survive in those situations and with those patterns. Change is scary and difficult and often resisted because we are taken into unfamiliar patterns and unfamiliar situations and we don’t know how to exist in the unfamiliar, so we fall back on what is known, even if what is known is unhealthy for us. Jesus desires to move us into new patterns of life, into healthy patterns of life, and that means we are going to be led into the unknown and the unfamiliar.

The man in this story faced physically paralysis, but there are multitudes of people who face other types of paralysis, and they are very debilitating – they are emotional and spiritual paralysis. And those types of paralysis are part of the second question I believe Jesus is asking in this passage – will we allow him to move us beyond our fears?

We are a very strange culture in how we deal with fear. Do you remember the TV show Fear Factor? I watched it a few times and found it fascinating. People would come on the show and do things to face and, hopefully, conquer their fears. If you were a participant with a fear of spiders they might have that person put their head in a container full of spiders. Bungee jumping has become popular with many people because it’s a way – a very dramatic way – of conquering fear.

There are many legitimate fears we face. The political realities of our world – such as terrorism and political instability – economic stresses, what kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit – these are but a few of the very real fears we face.

There is a lot of fear in churches these days. Some churches fear the changing culture. Because they are afraid they hide behind their walls and denounce those outside of the church walls. Some churches are fearful of decline. Hopefully they will learn to respond by opening up and reaching out in more determined ways, or they can withdraw into themselves and adopt a survival mentality.

Jesus stepped into this man’s struggle and into his fears. One of the great phrases in this story comes from verse 6 – Jesus saw him lying there. And here’s the beauty of what Jesus did – he wasn’t content to leave him lying there.

The way of Jesus was always to notice people. He noticed this man; he noticed Zaccheus being pushed aside by the crowd; he noticed the children that the disciples tried to keep from him; Jesus was always noticing people who needed to be noticed.

The pattern in our world is too often a pattern of hiding the struggles of people away from view. Out of sight and out of mind can make life easier as we can then pretend those difficulties don’t exist. But Jesus was never one to hide those struggles; instead he brought them out into the light of day and healed those struggles.

Interestingly, there is a very strange response this man has when Jesus asks if he want to be healed. When Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed, he doesn’t really answer. He never says, yes, or for that matter, no. Isn’t that odd? I don’t know if the man had any idea who Jesus was, but even if he didn’t, it was a simple question. Do you want to be healed is a very simple question that requires only a yes or no; there are no other choices. Instead, the man starts to explain to Jesus how there is no one to help him into the pool when the water stirs.

How sad that is. He’s not avoiding Jesus’ question; he’s simply speaking out of the pain of his condition and its attending isolation. The only path of healing that he can see is to have someone help him into the water. He has no one. No one! No family, no friends; not a single soul is with him. Imagine the isolation and despair he must have felt.

And into that isolation and despair steps Jesus. The actions of Jesus ask us to do the same. I wonder what happened to those who had found healing at that pool. Did none of them ever come back to help the others? Did they receive the healing they had wanted so desperately and then went on their way, forgetting there were others desperately in need of healing?

Last weekend I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the miners who were trapped in that mine in Chile last year. Thirty-three miners trapped for 69 days in that mine. It is unimaginable what they must have experienced. It was so enjoyable to watch their joy at being rescued. It is impossible for us to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped so far underground for so long, especially during those days when before the rescuers were able to make contact with them. Time magazine reported on the role faith played in their survival, especially in those days before rescuers made contact with the miners. At times, the report says, that dark confines of that mine became like a church, as the miners worshipped together. It was as though, one said, Jesus had stepped into that mine with them.

That is what Jesus does. He steps into our need. Just as he stepped into the life of the man lying beside the pool in Jerusalem, just as he stepped into the lives of those miners, he steps into our lives and into our need. And he invites us to step into the lives of others. When our need is met we don’t wander off to our own lives; we are compelled to step into the lives of others so that we may touch them in the name of Jesus.

May we pray.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February 13, 2011 - A Much-Needed Conversation

February 13, 2011

John 4:1-15

Now, But Not Yet

A Much Needed Conversation

Several years ago I read an article about an interesting trend in our country. According to the article, more and more people are now moving into particular areas of the country and particular communities for a reason other than employment opportunities, schools systems, and family. Now, people are increasingly choosing their community because of the dominant political or religious affiliation of that area. It’s not just read and blue states any longer, but red and blue communities or neighborhoods, or religious or nonreligious neighborhoods.

It’s a further splintering of our society, and additional evidence that people are aligning with like-minded people to the exclusion of those with different viewpoints.

As we continue our series of messages Now, But Not Yet we turn to John’s gospel for the message A Much Needed Conversation. This is the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In that story we find that Jesus had a much-needed conversation with this woman, and it touches on the reality of much needed conversations in our society.

It is becoming increasingly difficult in our society to have discussions between people who have different or clashing religious and political viewpoints. I think this is a great tragedy, and I don’t like how some people very skillfully and very intentionally exploit those differences to create greater division. It’s not always easy to talk about religious and political matters with others, because we hold strong opinions and we can get very emotional when we talk about these matters.

But we have to learn to talk about them. It grieves me that we are a people who are so divided. It doesn’t have to be that way. I have a friend I enjoy debating theology and politics with. We don’t agree on very much, but we have found one basic point of agreement. When it comes to politics and theological views we both think the other is an idiot. But at least we can agree on something. And we can talk about our views. We don’t yell at each other and we laugh a lot when we debate.

We have entered an age of division and separation when people find it difficult not only to live with their differences; they can’t even find ways to talk about those differences.

One of the things I really enjoy about our church is the ability to talk whether we agree or not. Many churches represent such a narrow layer of uniformity that no diversity exists, and when it does exist they can’t talk about their differences.

We are a Disciples church, and to be honest, Disciples churches sometimes get criticized by some for being too open, too accommodating, to accepting, too liberal – I think we’re just willing to accept the differences between people and allow people to be who they are.

Well, to set today’s story in context, let’s look at a map from the time of Jesus.

In the time of Jesus the land of Palestine was 120 miles north to south. In that 120 miles were three very separate and distinct divisions. In the north was Galilee and in the south was Judea. In between the two was Samaria. Because of the ill will with the Samaritans many Jewish people traveled around Samaria, rather than going through that territory, making their trip twice as long. Jesus, though, was traveling through Samaria. Notice that John says he had to go through Samaria (verse 4).

This was a long-standing enmity between people. It began around 729 BC, when the Assyrians conquered Samaria. This later happened to the southern kingdom when Babylon was the conqueror and they took people into exile. Those exiles, though, did not lose their ethnic identity. When they were finally allowed to go back and they began to rebuild the temple, their northern neighbors offered to help. They were told their help was neither wanted nor needed. They were no longer Jewish and they could not be part of such a sacred endeavor. That was around 450 BC and by the time of Jesus there was still a tremendous amount of bitterness.

Jesus and his disciples came to the town of Sychar, and while his disciples went into town to buy food, Jesus sat at the well. It was there at the well that a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus engages her in conversation.

This is a story about very deep divisions between people. It is a story with centuries old animosities. It is a story, though, of how Jesus stepped across those divisions and broke through that animosity, and in doing so, challenges us to be people who will do the same.

The disciples were probably very uncomfortable going off to buy food. According to the mores of the time, they weren’t supposed to do such a thing, but to their credit, they did. That was probably a big step for them, so things were changing in their hearts and minds. It reminds us that we are a very mixed bag as people. We can be open, graceful, kind and at other times we can be petty, mean, and vindictive. How do such competing attitudes come out of us? That, unfortunately, is the human condition.

When the disciples return John says they were surprised to find him (Jesus) talking with a woman – verse 27). The disciples had this woman all figured out – without knowing her. She’s a woman. She’s a Samaritan. She’s a Samaritan woman. Being a Samaritan woman was about as low as you could get on the social ladder of the time. In fact, she wouldn’t even make the bottom rung of the social ladder; she wouldn’t even be allowed on the ladder. This woman probably didn’t have to come out to this well for water. They were over half a mile from the town, and there was surely water in town, so why didn’t she just get water there? My guess is that she was so much of an outcast even in her own community it was easier for her to go outside of the town to avoid the comments and the stares and rejection she would have faced.

This is someone who is buried under an avalanche of labels and assumptions.

Do you like being labeled? I really dislike being labeled – even if those labels are accurate. I don’t like when people label me and then think they know me because of the label they place upon me. I get labeled sometimes just because of being a minister. It’s amazing how that can be a conversation killer.

What do you do? I’m a minister.

Oh, well it was nice to meet you; I’ve got to go.

It’s really interesting when their reaction starts with oh. Sometimes I get You’re a minister? Oh, you’re that guy. You’re at that church. Don’t you all have women elders? Don't you all let women do stuff at that church?

Yes, we do. It’s something called equality; perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Didn’t you used to be at a different kind of church? What happened to you?

I saw the light.

Jesus did not shrink from people who were negatively labeled. When his disciples recoiled at his speaking with this woman he didn’t say oh my gosh, you’re right. What was I thinking? Let’s get away from her! And we’re in Samaria! We’ve got to get out of here! They didn’t say anything, John says (verse 27) because they knew better. They knew this was Jesus. They knew Jesus saw the person and not the label. They knew Jesus saw the person and not the shortcoming. They knew Jesus saw the need of a person as being more important than what people thought of his association with that person.

People are so much more than just a label that gets attached to them. We have to see beyond the labels that get attached to people or that we attach to people – Republican, Democrat, liberal, fundamentalist, or whatever other label might be used.

Jesus was bringing down the barriers that are created by labels and prejudices and differences and suspicion. Barriers don’t come down without very specific, conscious efforts. I can’t sit at home and desire the barriers between myself and others to come down; I have to get up and go to where those people are and interact with them and place myself in a position where I have to confront those barriers and allow the spirit of God to break down those barriers.

And the very sad reality is that sometimes it’s religious rules that create the barriers. That was certainly the case in this story. Sometimes the religious rules people manufacture are just plain wrong. Sometimes the religious rules people manufacture cause prejudices and separation and hurt and suffering. It’s not a really big deal when a rule says you can’t sing a certain style of song in worship; it’s something else entirely when people manufacture a rule under the guise of religiosity and that rule has a very real impact on the lives of people.

The woman in this story was a victim of the rules that were manufactured to judge and to separate and to condemn.

Despite how humanity may try at times to box God into a particular way of dealing with people – and the kinds of people he deals with – God is always beyond those human restrictions. We can no more contain God in our manufactured rules and restrictions than we can go outside the door of this building and control the blowing of the wind.

This moment in the gospels could be seen as the birthplace of the universal nature of the gospel. Here was where Jesus placed the marker that God’s love was not just for some people – it was for all people. His love was even for those religious people don’t like and those who religious people may believe aren’t worthy or deserving of God’s love.

Sadly, this woman decided to get into a theological debate with Jesus. She wants to debate about the temple, which was a very contentious topic between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. There were really important issues she needed to discuss with Jesus, but she wants to get sidetracked into a debate.

This is still the case. How often do people get sidetracked into theological debates and discussions that keep them from the things that do matter? Are you Calvinist or Armenian in your theology? Are you premillenial or postmillienial in your view of Revelation? Are you contemporary or traditional in your view of worship? Are you supportive of or skeptical of the emerging church movement? And on and on we could go, but the point being that theological arguments, as interesting or uninteresting as they may sometimes be, often do little more than keep people from more pressing and important matters. It’s the kind of redirection of concentration that could make one say excuse me, could you go starve to death somewhere else while we argue about important matters?

It was a sad state of division in Jesus’ day, and it’s not much better today. But maybe one day there will be another written, one much different from the one I read several years ago. This article may tell of when humanity finally decides that unity is better than division, that love is better than hate, that talking is better than yelling. That’s our prayer.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

February 6, 2011 - The Free Gift of Grace

February 6, 2011

Luke 18:18-30

Now, But Not Yet

The Free Gift of Grace

When I was in seminary, and taking a New Testament class, we eventually came to the book of Revelation. Before saying anything about Revelation the professor projected a political cartoon on the wall. The cartoon contained a donkey and an elephant, and we all knew what they symbolized. The professor asked a student from South America to give his interpretation of the cartoon, and it was so totally off base and so wrong that we couldn’t help but snicker. The professor then told us that we often make the same mistake as this student. We couldn’t understand how he could say such a thing; we knew exactly what the symbols in the cartoon meant. But the professor pointed out we knew the correct interpretation because they were symbols understood by everyone in our culture. The student from different culture was simply interpreting that cartoon according to the standards of his culture. The professor then told us how we do this with the book of Revelation and other parts of the Bible – we bring our cultural viewpoints into our interpretation of Scripture, which causes us, very often, to miss the real point being made.

That was a great lesson, and I was reminded of it as I thought about our Scripture passage for this morning. This passage is so often misinterpreted, and it’s misinterpreted because of our cultural viewpoint.

How many have been troubled by this story, wondering how much of their wealth and possessions they must give away? Considering the fact that the majority of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, we are the wealthy. How many have wondered if this passage teaches that having money makes it impossible to gain salvation? Our culture, and its obsession with money and the idea that we have to earn our way in life, gives us a particular lens through which we read this story, and that lens leads us down a road of interpretation that is not always accurate.

You may have heard the following explanation for this morning’s Scripture passage – the statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God represents this – there was a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem that was shaped like the eye of a needle. A camel that is fully loaded with goods could not pass through that gate until it had been relieved of its burden. In a similar way, we must divest ourselves of our dependency on wealth and riches in order to gain entrance to the kingdom of God. Is this what you’ve heard?

Put that out of your mind. Forget that interpretation. For one thing, there is no evidence such a gate ever existed in the wall around Jerusalem. And though the Bible has plenty of passages that speak about money, wealth, possessions – and their attendant dangers – that is not the primary meaning of this passage.

When this man comes to Jesus and asks him the question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus seizes on the moment as an opportunity to teach an important lesson. And Jesus is not just targeting this man with the lesson; he is really targeting his disciples and everyone else who was listening. It’s a lesson of such critical importance that Jesus makes his point in a very dramatic way.

The lesson Jesus is teaching in this story is one concerning God’s grace, and the reality that God’s grace is freely given to us.

It begins with this rich man asking Jesus a question of great importance. And, we should note, there is no evidence that the man is selfish or self-serving or acting in any way but a very genuine manner. By all measures this man comes to Jesus with a sincere heart, asking a sincere question. He really wants to know how he might gain eternal life.

Jesus answers his question by telling him that he already knows the commandments, and the man says he has kept them as a boy. Jesus then tells him he is only lacking one thing. Now, wouldn’t you think that is really good news? Imagine, Jesus tells you that you are doing so well there is only one thing you are lacking in life. That’s an excellent commentary on this man’s life – he’s only deficient in one area! But what a big deficiency it is. Although he is lacking just one thing, it is this – he must sell everything he owns and then give away all the proceeds. Sell his real estate holdings, cash in his stocks and bonds, liquidate his retirement accounts, sell his coin collection, gather up all his lose change from under the cushions on his couch (and then sell the couch) – everything. He is to make himself destitute.

Does this strike you as unfair? It always seemed unfair to me. That’s not something Jesus went around asking of other people. Other wealthy people came to Jesus, but he didn’t ask them to sell all they had and give away the proceeds. The unfairness of it causes us to invent some qualities about this man to take the edge off. We say, well, he must have been very selfish and Jesus recognized this. He must have worshipped his money more than he was worshipping God so Jesus wanted to remove that barrier from his life. Jesus was testing him to see how much he really loved God. If the test of loving God is selling all we have then I suspect we are all in danger of failing that test.

The deficiency in this man wasn’t his wealth or his attitude about it; his real deficiency was in his theology and we see that deficiency in the question he asks – what must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer is, he doesn’t have to do anything. To ask what one must do is to imply there is something we must do to earn the gift of God’s grace, and we do not have to earn God’s grace; it is a free gift that he gives to us.

The reason Jesus tells the man he must sell all he owns is to drive home the point of free grace to his disciples. When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God notice the reaction he receives – who then can be saved? They had been told all their lives that if you are wealthy it is a sign of God’s blessing and if you are that blessed you have also been given the gift of salvation. So to be told that a rich person couldn’t enter the kingdom of God was mind-blowing to them. Wealth and salvation went together. The statement of Jesus went against everything they had been taught. If a rich person couldn’t be saved, who could? Everyone listening to Jesus that day had the same thought – if this guy can’t make it to heaven what hope do any of the rest of us have?

And that’s exactly what Jesus wanted them to think. He wanted them to think of it as impossible; he wanted them to think there was nothing they could do. His answer was what is impossible with men is possible with God. Jesus is saying it is impossible for people to earn God’s grace and salvation. How do you earn what’s freely offered? Salvation lies solely in the hands of God; it is not up to us to earn it through any amount of good works. Salvation is freely given.

The truth about salvation is this – you don’t have to “do” anything. “Doing” something implies that it is in our power to earn the gift of salvation. Can I do enough good works? Is there a threshold of righteousness that I can achieve by being nice to people? Can I serve on enough church committees? Can I attend enough church services? Can I feed enough hungry people? Can I give away enough money? Can I help enough people across the street and be nice to enough kittens and stray dogs?

We often think of salvation as having some kind of a graded scale and at some point we are good enough that we cross that threshold and earn our entrance to God’s kingdom. But Jesus flatly rejects that kind of thinking in this passage. The point he is making is not about selling everything you have; it’s about the truth that salvation is the free gift of God that is given to us without any need to earn it.

Have you ever known someone who has spent years trying to earn the love of another person? It’s a sad thing to see, isn’t it? They feel unloved and they work and work and work, all in the hope they will be accepted and loved by that other person.

That is not how God works! We don’t have to earn his love; it is already ours; he has already given his love to us. God is not watching us and saying Oh man, Dave was almost there. He only needed one more good deed this week. If he had just given back that cell phone he found at church before making all those international calls on it first, or if he had just left a better tip at lunch the other day, or responded nicer to the driver who cut him off at that intersection. He was this close to earning my love this week.

This passage teaches us something else as well. This passage pokes a lot of holes in the belief that some people can look down upon others because they are so “good” and the others are so “bad.” This passage reminds us we are all in the same condition, regardless of our moral achievements. I may conduct my life on a higher moral plane than others, but it doesn’t mean anything in terms of salvation. Being a moral person may make us a good citizen and a more productive member of society but it doesn’t earn us salvation. That’s not to say that being moral isn’t good; I think we ought to be moral people, but we must realize salvation does not come from our personal morality but from God’s grace.

The tendency among religious people is too often about who being better than someone else, which is erroneous. Again, I am not saying we don’t have to worry about being moral people; I’m saying the point of morality is not to make us feel better than others.

This was the mistake of so many of the scribes and Pharisees at the time of Jesus. Their emphasis on morality led to an insufferable pride because they were so much better than everyone else, and because they were so much better they believed God loved them more than everyone else.

At one of my previous churches we decided to set up a table in town and give away lunch to passersby. I was not expecting the reaction we received from a number of people, which was distrust and suspicion. Evidently, many people really do believe there is not such thing as a free lunch. One man in particular reacted very strongly. He actually became angry, saying, I think this is a gimmick. You’re just trying to get me in that church so you can get my money!

It’s sad to think that our world conditions people to react with such suspicion about a free gift. The grace of God is free. We do not have to earn it and we do not have to be good enough in the eyes of anyone else to receive it. May we receive that grace with gratitude and share it with others.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

January 30, 2011 - The Danger of Self-Importance

January 30, 2011

Luke 22:14-27

Now, But Not Yet

The Danger of Self-Importance

In the fall of 1976, when I came home from school for fall break, my dad told me he was thinking about letting me take his car back to school. Ordinarily, that would not be good news. My dad almost always drove old clunkers.

I learned to drive a standard shift in his old pickup truck that would rattle and almost fall to pieces at 50 mph because the front was so out of alignment. But he wouldn’t get the front end aligned because he said we would drive it too fast and that was how he made sure we drove a reasonable speed. Something possessed my dad to buy, in the summer of 1976, a Ford Mustang.

It was a 1966, cherry red, with black bucket seats, and a 289 V8 engine.

At the time I was driving a 1966 or ’67 Chrysler Newport that had belonged to my grandparents.

I was thrilled with the idea of driving a Mustang around campus, rather than my grandparents’ old car. The day before I went back to school he changed his mind about taking the Mustang because it had too many miles on it – 60 some thousand miles.

The real reason I wanted to drive that Mustang was not because it was a better car. The Chrysler was actually the smoothest driving car of any car I have owned. But it wasn’t cool. The Mustang oozed cool, and that’s what I was interested in. I could feel much more important in a Mustang than I could a Newport.

That’s what it’s often about in our culture, isn’t it? We want to be seen, to be noticed, to be important.

Listening to the news early in the morning the other day, I was amazed to hear one reality star talk about promoting her “brand.” Her brand wasn’t a product, it wasn’t her TV show – it was herself. Promoting a brand, evidently, now means to nurture one’s fame. In 1968 Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes. He’s proven to be fairly prophetic. These days, it seems that most everyone has their own web page, their own blog, their own Youtube channel and in doing so raises their every word and action to a level of importance that the entire world should know what we are thinking and doing at every moment.

We live in a celebrity obsessed and fame obsessed society. So many people want to be famous and important. I think this desire actually springs from a very deeply rooted, God-given desire for living a life of significance. The problem, though, is that so many people are confusing significance with self-importance.

This can happen in the strangest of places, as we see in our Scripture passage for this morning. We are continuing our series of messages Now, But Not Yet, about the kingdom of God breaking into the world and beginning to take root and to grow, but the kingdom is not yet fully realized.

This morning we come to a passage that takes place during the Last Supper. As Luke records those events, where Jesus breaks the bread and says it his body, about to be broken on the cross, and takes the cup and says it represents his blood, which is about to be poured out, notice the reaction of the disciples. This is a scene of momentous importance, taking place just hours before the death of Jesus; this is the final teaching he gives before his arrest, and what are his disciples doing? Are they discussing how they can be like Jesus? Are they discussing how to continue his mission? Are they discussing the amazing truth of God himself in human flesh about to be executed by his own creation? No. Luke says this – a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest. At this moment of tremendous import, just hours away from the crucifixion, here is what the disciples are doing – they are arguing about which of them is the most important. John may have been saying I think people see me as more important than everyone else. After all, I’m considered the Beloved Disciples, so surely I must be the most important. No, says Peter, I am. I am the one to whom Jesus most often turns. No, James tells Peter, people know you are an impetuous hothead and that’s why they all see me as most important. No, says Judas, I am the most important because I am going to pull us away from all this talk of spirituality and into the political realm and bring about a political kingdom. And on and on it sadly went.

And the amazing thing to consider is, this is happening in the presence of Jesus! Imagine the absurdity of this scene. This was the time, the memory of which has become central to our worship two thousand years later, when they should have been focused on their calling and how they could serve, not upon who was the greatest.

Jesus has just poured out his heart about the giving of his life on the cross and here were his closest followers not only missing the point entirely but making a mockery of what Jesus had said by arguing about a matter that was in total opposition to what Jesus was about. He must have been shaking his head. These are the guys I chose to be my closest followers? Should I go back and pick another group? These are the ones who will continue the ministry and mission of God? These are the ones who are going to take the message of God to the world? They are just hours away from taking over the mission of Jesus and they don’t get it. He must have been shaking his head and thinking these guys just aren’t ready.

Now, having said all that, perhaps I should speak in their defense. Sometimes, when we are faced with something so overwhelming we turn to something of far less significance, and the reason we do that is because it is so difficult to handle difficult truths and difficult realities. This is why political discussions so often get reduced to the inane and inconsequential. It’s much easier, don’t you think, to talk about something of no consequence than it is to talk about the overwhelming issues facing our country. Churches do this as well. Do churches sometimes argue about silly things? Of course they do! Why do churches sometimes argue about things such as the color of paper the worship program is printed on? Because it’s easier to do that than it is to talk about communities all across the land that are falling apart and how we are called to love and minister to those communities and to try and put them back together. One of the biggest arguments in my home church as I was growing up was over how much of the church to air condition. Should it just be the sanctuary and fellowship hall or just the sanctuary? And should we air condition the classrooms as well? I don’t remember much discussion – or certainly as much passion – about loving and serving our community.

The disciples found it easier to talk about who was most important than face what it meant that God has such an unbelievable love for us that he would become a flesh and blood person named Jesus and die for us, and not only does he go to the cross for us but he asks us to take up our crosses as well. I don’t blame the disciples for lapsing into such a crazy discussion; I would rather talk about anything else than the call to take up a cross. I would have been right there with them, saying can we talk about something else? Anything else?

But Jesus redirects them back. Jesus brings them back from the talk of self-importance and reminds them it’s not honor or importance they are looking for, but significance. Self-importance is often just a misdirection of our desire and need for significance. Living a life that is meaningful and significant is a God-given desire. God wants us to live lives that are meaningful and significant to others because our lives are meaningful and significant when we love and serve others and make a difference to them. We are not significant when we appear on a reality show or when we have a million followers on Twitter, or when we have a web site that gets a thousand visitors a day. We are significant when we reach into the life of someone who is broken and say I love you and I will walk with you and I will point you to a God who is real and his love for you is real.

That’s what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t give people a belief system or a theological framework or a how-to guide; he gave himself, and he gave a calling to us to be like him by giving of ourselves. Self-important people don’t do that; they are too important to deal with you. Self-important people raise their nose in the air, and they sniff, and they look down at you and say I’m not dealing with you. I’m too important for that.

But not Jesus. Jesus not only walks into our brokenness; Jesus allowed his body to become brokenness for us.

That is a mixed up, upside down, crazy way of living according to the values of the world around us. Everybody knows the way you get ahead in this world is through self-promotion. How can you get anywhere without putting yourself out there and fighting and scratching for what you want? But Jesus flatly says don’t be like what we see in the culture around us. He says in the world around us people lord their power and authority over others, but then says, you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (verse 26).

In this passage, as in so many, Jesus reminds us that the values of the kingdom turn the values of the world upside down. In a world where you have to scratch and claw to get ahead, in a world where you have to step on others as you climb the rungs of the ladder of success, Jesus is saying we are called to a different way. Greatness in the kingdom, Jesus says, is not measured by power or title or the size and location of one’s office, but by the willingness to serve.

So here are a few suggestions. One, get out of the rat race. I don’t mean quit your job; I mean quit worrying about getting the biggest office or whatever it is that is the greatest measure of importance to you. Two, look for opportunities to live with significance. What can you do to minister to someone around you? Third, what can you do to bring the kingdom to our corner of the world? We minister to individuals, but we also minister to the larger community. Three short points, but three very big tasks.

Looking back to my dad’s Mustang, I know now that I was better off not having that car. I didn’t think so at the time, but I understand it now. Instead of shaking my head about the car I could have had, I have a sense of gratitude that I wasn’t given something that would have blown my head up in self-importance.

Significance, not self-importance. That’s what Jesus taught his disciples.

January 23, 2011 - Walking Into the Chaos of Life

January 23, 2011

Mark 9:2-17

Now, But Not Yet

Walking Into the Chaos of Life

Last Sunday evening I enjoyed going with our youth to Central Christian Church in Lexington for the Martin Luther King, Jr. service. They like to go because they enjoy the service but they also enjoy catching up with their friends from camp.

I loved getting to see my friends from camp. I spent a lot of time at church camp when I was in junior high and high school. I would go as often as I could – I would go as a camper and then I would go back for more weeks as a dishwasher or to mow the grass or to work as a maintenance person (which is a scary thought).

Life at camp was great. You didn’t get much sleep but you had a lot of fun and experienced some really meaningful moments. You know what we called those kinds of experiences? You’ve had the kinds of meaningful moments where you called them – mountaintop experiences.

That’s a phrase that comes out of our scripture reading for this morning, when Jesus goes up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured before them and Elijah and Moses appear with him.


What I never liked about camp was coming back to the reality of everyday life. Camp was great because you were shielded from so many of the realities of life. When I came home I had some yards I needed to mow, I had errands to do on our farm, and I had to deal with some of my friends who would make fun of me for going to church camp. It would have been so much simpler, I always thought, just to stay on the mountaintop of the camp experience. Maybe we could all just move there and live out our days in that experience.

But the mountaintop is not where we spend most of life, is it? As much as we enjoy the time at the top of the mountain, it seems to me that we spend most of life somewhere between the mountaintop and the bottom of the valley. Some days we have that great mountaintop experience but most of our days are somewhat further down the mountain. Sometimes we are in the middle and there are times when it seems we are dragging along day after day in the lowest part of the valley.

Today we come to this great story, and what is especially great is how Mark takes us not only to the mountaintop but back down to the foot of the mountain, and it is at the foot of the mountain that the disciples learned to walk into the chaos of life. They learned the goal was not to avoid the chaos, but to embrace it and stride right into the midst of it.

(Mount Tabor)

This is the traditional location of the transfiguration, where you can see the Church of the Transfiguration. Many scholars believe it may have been on this mountain, Mount Hermon.

(Mount Hermon)

Whichever mountain, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up on the mountain and witness this transfiguration, and see Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses.

The first point of interest in this story, I think, is the choice of the three disciples to go up on the mountain with Jesus. Imagine being Peter, James, and John. First, you are one of the twelve specially chosen by Jesus out of all those who were his followers. That’s pretty great, but then out of those twelve you are one of the three who form his inner circle. That’s pretty special. They must have been pretty special. They may have gotten inflated egos because of being so special.

But the point of being chosen was not because they were special or set apart for privilege, but to be set apart for service. At this point they may have simply thought they were the most important of the twelve disciples, but Jesus was setting them apart for a greater responsibility of leadership and service.

Billy Graham made an interesting comment years ago when he spoke about the celebrity status people often bestowed upon him. He admitted it was difficult to keep a spirit of humility when people offer private planes and limousines for your transportation. There are some celebrity ministers that don’t seem to mind those perks, unfortunately.

For Peter, James, and John, Jesus was setting them apart for an extra measure of leadership and service. That measure of leadership and service would not lead them to a life of privilege but to a life of suffering and in the case of Peter and James to martyrdom.

The second point of interest is Peter’s verbal response to this experience. It is such an overwhelming moment that Peter just has to open his mouth and say something, which would have been okay except for the fact that he says something dumb. One of the things I so like about Peter is his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time – dumb things, because I say a lot of dumb things.

All of us have said dumb things. Do you want to know one of the dumbest things I ever said? One of the things that made it dumb is that it wasn’t said just to one person; it was said to a group of people. In church. During a sermon. It was such a dumb thing to say that I always win the prize at minister gatherings when we compare dumb things we have said in sermons. It was so dumb that I’m going to add to the dumbness by telling you what I said – now that’s really dumb! (but you’ll notice I waited until a really wintery day when the attendance would be lower). It wasn’t just what I said, it was the context that really made it dumb. When I was a senior in college I was the youth minister at Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee, a small African-American Disciples church. They gave me the opportunity to preach one Sunday, and in that sermon I told a story from my church camp days. On Friday evenings at our camp, at the vespers service, we met on a hill, on one side of a valley. On the other side of the valley was a large cross dug into the side of the hill. On Friday afternoon corncobs were soaked in kerosene and then put in that dug out cross on the hillside. At the end of the service, when the sun had set and it was dark, someone would light up that cross. You can already see it coming, can’t you?

Yes, this is going exactly where you think it is going. As I stood behind that pulpit, in the town where Tanya was raised and as a young girl had witnessed the Ku Klux Klan marching in the town’s Christmas parade, and before a congregation of African-American worshippers, I told of that cross and then said you’ve never seen a more beautiful sight than that burning cross. That’s pretty dumb, isn’t it? Actually, it’s incredibly dumb. Now don’t you feel better about some of the things you’ve said!

Peter’s response seems pretty tame in comparison. He says to Jesus in verse 5 – Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. And then Mark adds this note – He did not know what to say, they were so frightened. Here’s a good rule of thumb – when you don’t know what to say – don’t say anything! When you don’t know what to say, but are insistent on saying something, it’s almost always going to be the wrong thing to say.

What was wrong with what Peter said? Here’s what was wrong – he wanted to stay on the mountaintop and forget about all the people down in the valley. Imagine the excitement and power of this experience, imagine witnessing these events, and then imagine having to come down from the mountain to be confronted immediately with the chaotic situation that awaited them. Mark tells us that when they get to the bottom of the mountain there is a large crowd gathered around the other nine disciples. The teachers of the law were arguing with them and a man with a son possessed by a spirit was complaining about the inability of the ten to provide healing. Who wouldn’t want to stay up on the mountain?

It would be so much easier to stay on the mountaintop, away from the needs of people, away from the clamor of the crowd, away from all the people wanting something from you, away from the stresses of the multitude of needs that waited.

When we are on our mountaintop we cannot forget about those who are still in the valley. When we are soaking up the joy and excitement of the mountaintop there are many who are struggling through the valley and they cannot be left behind.

So Jesus leads Peter, James, and John down from the mountaintop and Mark says in verse 15 that the crowd, at the foot of the mountain, when they saw Jesus, ran to him. It’s enough to make you want to run back up the mountain. Can you imagine the stampede of needs that came at Jesus? Who wouldn’t want to run away?

But the lesson Jesus is teaching to his disciples is that there is a connection between the mountaintop and the valley. If we are not willing to walk with people through the valley then what happens to us on the mountaintop is negated; it’s not really true.

There is a connection being made in this passage between meeting God and then entering into the lives of those around us. If worship is to meet God then we can say the real test of worship is how well it moves us to connect to the lives of others.

Jesus didn’t go up the mountain to avoid people or to escape human need; Jesus went to the mountain to further prepare himself for what was ahead – the cross – and it was a reaffirmation of his mission. Sometimes that requires a time of solitude, but it doesn’t call for complete and total withdrawal. Faith, writes William Barclay, must have solitude, but not solitariness (Barclay, p. 214). Solitude makes us better prepared to meet the challenges of life and of our calling, but it should not to lead us to withdraw from the realities of the world.

It is absolutely critical that we have times to renew and recharge our faith. You can’t give yourself away without taking time for renewal or you become a burnt-out shell. Sometimes we wear people out by putting so many things on them. When a church finds a willing worker, what often happens? We load them up with every job we can and we burn them out. I remember hearing someone say, some years ago, that they dreaded going to church because they had so many jobs there it was worse than going to work.

What a sad commentary on what had been put on that person.

But what we are seeing more and more in our world is not stepping aside for a time of renewal but removal. It’s so easy to look at our world and throw up our hands and say I’m done. I’m going to live in my own world and take care of myself. If you choose to do that you’ll have a lot of company, because that’s where more and more people are choosing to live.

Jesus didn’t give his disciples that option.

When the youth group went to All People’s Christian Center in LA last August we had an interesting experience when we had some time off and went into Hollywood. We ended up driving along the edges of the Beverly Hills Mall, which was a very interesting contrast to the area where we were staying and working in south Los Angeles.

(Beverly Hills)

Economically and socially, Beverly Hills is a mountaintop in our culture. As a group, we felt more out of place there than we do in south LA, which is the valley in economic and social terms.

The members of our group were happy to leave Beverly Hills and get back to south LA, even though it was a very deprived neighborhood in comparison to Beverly Hills. There is nothing wrong with the people who live in Beverly Hills, but it struck me as a place that could be very insular. Our community can be very insular as well, if we allow it.

It’s so much easier to want to stay on the mountaintop and escape the realities of life, but let us remember that Jesus very purposely led Peter, James, and John down the mountain and into the chaos of life, and he leads us there as well.