Monday, April 23, 2012

April 22, 2012 - Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths - A Church Without Walls

When I was in college I was hoping to secure a double major in religion and psychology.  I decided not to take the final two classes I needed to gain the psychology major, as I had diagnosed myself with all the phobias we were studying. 

But the psychology classes did start a long fascination in me about how we perceive the nature of reality.  We all have filters on our eyes and ears that affect how we perceive the world, other people, and even ourselves. 

As an illustration, look at the following picture.

What do you see in this picture?  How many of you see two faces opposite of each other?  How many of you see a chalice, or cup?  How many of you see a deer running across a meadow with a mountain peak in the background (if that’s what you see I have someone I need to refer you to). How many of you can’t see either?

Why do we see what we see?  This is one of the great questions of life, I believe, and it’s a question that we rarely, if ever, stop to ponder.  Vision – how we see others and how we see the world around us – is so incredibly important to understand. 

When we come to understand something we almost never say now I understand.  What do we say?  Now I see.

Here is an important truth to understand (or maybe more appropriately – to see) – it is our vision that often keeps us from being able to see.  That sounds like a contradictory statement, but how we see the world and how we understand the world can actually keep us from grasping very important truths and realities.

Here is one of the most important aspects of faith – faith helps open our eyes to truth and reality; faith helps us to see what is actually happening in our world, it helps us to really see ourselves, and it helps us to really see others.

This morning we continue our series Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths as we come to the message A Church Without Walls.  In recent weeks, as we have been going through the Old Testament we’ve been studying stories, but today we come to a passage that’s not a story, but a prophecy. It comes from Isaiah, 2:1-5, and is one of his most well known prophecies. 

Let’s read that passage now. 

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; 
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. 
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” 
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. 
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. 
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

That is a statement of hope, not a statement of reality.  People were not saying let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and nations were not beating their swords into plowshares or their spears into pruning hooks.

What Isaiah is envisioning is the removing of the walls that separate humanity.  It is, really, a prophetic challenge to the church, as the church is called to be a gathering that removes the walls that separate people, but is sometimes a gathering that builds walls without even realizing they are doing so.  It is a prophetic call to see the world and people through the eyes of God.  Isaiah spoke words with the aim of opening our eyes; opening our eyes to see the world and others with a God-shaped vision.  Our vision is going to be shaped by something – just as the opening picture demonstrates, but Isaiah is calling us to have a vision that is shaped by God.

It is a vision that seeks to tear down the wall between worship and the world.
I have to admit that I often feel a bit uncomfortable playing an electric guitar in worship, and I know exactly why – because it’s hard to overcome what you were told years ago.

When I was in, probably the 9th grade, my home church hosted a singing group one Sunday morning.  They were from Milligan College, where I went to school, and along with the group of six or seven singers they had a couple of instruments with them – an acoustic guitar and a snare drum.  It was just a bit less than the amount of equipment we have up here this morning.  I was looking forward to hearing this group, and the fact that someone was going to play a guitar and a drum at church was amazing.  And then people started to come into the sanctuary.  As people came into the sanctuary and saw that guitar and drum on the platform, many turned around and walked out in anger.  About half of the congregation walked out that morning because those were not instruments to be used in worship.  A wall went up that morning – a wall that said what happens in here – in worship – is different from what takes place out there – in the world, and it created a disconnect between worship and the world.  It created a wall that divided my life into two different parts – my life in worship and my life outside of worship.

When you disconnect worship from life, bad things can happen.

That’s one of the realities Isaiah spoke against.  In his day, Elijah saw the disconnect between what took place in worship and what took place in daily life. In Isaiah’s day there was a great deal of activity at the Temple.  Plenty of people were coming to worship, but they would leave worship and fail to connect that worship with how they lived their lives.  By doing so, they failed to see how some of them were damaging the lives of others.  They failed to see, for instance, how they were making the lives of the poor more difficult.  They failed to see how they were constructing society to favor some people while oppressing other people.  They failed to see the great injustices and inequities of society that made the lives of many so very difficult.

Worship should be a time that opens our eyes, and a time that brings us to an understanding of the kind of world God desires.  If what we do here has no connection to how we live out there, we have constructed a wall that is very difficult to overcome.

It is a vision that seeks to tear down the walls between people.
When I show a picture such as the one on the screen at the beginning of my message it’s a relatively harmless exercise in perception.  It doesn’t really matter if you see a chalice or two faces in that picture.  But it does matter how we see other people, and we see people in very different ways.  Our experiences and our background will mold how we see other people, and sometimes those things cause us to look upon people in negative ways.

I only have to mention two names this morning to demonstrate how people can see others very differently – George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  As soon as we hear those two names all the things that influence how we see the world and how we see others start to work.

The sad truth of church history is that, instead of tearing down the walls between people, the church has sometimes built and enforced the walls of separation between people. 

Isaiah spoke of the day when many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of God” (verse 2).  It was not a house that welcomed many nations during Isaiah’s day.  In fact, the Temple became an example of the walls between people – literal walls.  There were divisions between the various parts of the Temple, and each wall further divided who was allowed to enter.  Gentile people could enter only the outermost part, women could only enter to a certain point, priests could only enter to a certain point, and only the high priest to the innermost portion of the Temple.  Isaiah’s vision is one when all people are welcomed into worship.

Churches, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, put up walls about who is welcome.  There are walls of race, of class, of economics, of point of view, and on and on we could go.  Is it any wonder that so many people have no problems with Jesus but have great problems with the church?

It is a vision that seeks to tear down the walls created by conflict.

Across the street from the United Nations building in New York, in Ralph Bunche Park, is the Isaiah Wall, which contains part of our Scripture reading for this morning.  I wonder sometimes if anyone in the UN pays attention to that wall.

Isaiah spoke those great words – they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. 

The interesting word in that passage is learn – neither shall they learn war any more.  War is not a natural state – it is a learned state.  Conflict is natural, but war is not.

It is so difficult to learn to deal with our differences.  Even in our own religious heritage, as Disciples of Christ – a movement that began with the idea of bringing unity – we find that movement splintered into three separate movements.

Our conflicts consume so many of our resources.  Think of where we might be in human history had not so many resources been diverted into war.  Think of the amount of brainpower and finances that could have been used to further medicine or other important pursuits.  But our conflicts, far too often, result in division and violence.

Isaiah spoke these beautiful words, these hopeful words, of what might be.  He spoke these words many centuries ago, but they remain words that tug at the human heart because of the hope they express.

A church without walls becomes a world without walls.

Monday, April 16, 2012

April 15, 2012 - Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths: You Are Never Alone

I Kings 19:9-13

Of all the memories we have, some of the most powerful ones are the times when we have found encouragement that demonstrate we are not alone in this life.  In August of 1981 I moved to Louisville to attend seminary, and prior to my moving to Louisville I had been to Kentucky once.  I had never been to the seminary, didn’t know where the campus was located, and set off on my journey without any directions.

But worse than not knowing how to find the campus, I had no place to live.  Two weeks before I moved I received a letter saying I was bumped from campus housing because they were overbooked.  I thought I would just show up and hope for the best. At 24 years old it seemed like an adventure to me so I decided I would get in my car and head to Louisville.  The problem was, the closer I got to Louisville, the worse that decision began to look.  It began to look less like an adventure and more like a foolish decision. 

I arrived in Louisville in the middle of the evening, thinking there would be a big sign somewhere that said seminary, this way. I pulled off the interstate somewhere downtown – this was way before Mapquest and GPS systems – and was lost pretty quickly.  After a number of wrong turns and stopping to ask for directions several times I managed to find Lexington Road and the campus.  I will never forget stepping out of my car, looking around at totally strange surroundings, with all my belongings in my car (and not taking up much room in my car), and wondering what in the world had possessed me to arrive with no idea of where I was going to spend that first night.

I wandered around until I found the housing office and walked in with the hope that by some miracle there would be a place for me.  There was, unfortunately no place for me in the dorm or in any of the other seminary housing.

That was a very discouraging moment, and I started reconsidering the wisdom of coming to seminary under such circumstances.

This morning, continuing with our series Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths, we will study an event from the life of Elijah.  This is an event that takes place shortly after Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.  What’s fascinating about today’s story is that Elijah – who seemed so strong and confident on Mount Carmel – is now very discouraged and feeling as though he is totally alone.

This is the same Elijah who called out King Ahab and challenged the king and the nation of Israel to forsake the false gods and to return to the worship of the true God.  But when Ahab’s wife – the notorious Jezebel – heard of what Elijah had done she sent this word to him – by this time tomorrow you will be a dead man (19:2).  Evidently Ahab and hundreds of priests of Baal and the nation of Israel did not strike fear into Elijah – but Jezebel did.  Elijah was very afraid and ran for his life (19:3).  He flees to the wilderness, sits down under a tree, and in an absolute pit of despair tells God O Lord take my life (19:4).

Those are the words of a man who believes he is alone in the world.  He tells God I alone am left (19:10).  Elijah goes to sleep in that place and is awakened by an angel who provides him with food and water.

Elijah then goes into the wilderness, to Mount Horeb, for forty days and forty nights (19:8).  Elijah is able to travel into the wilderness and on to Mount Horeb, staying in a cave, not simply because he has been given something to eat and drink, but because of the knowledge that he is not alone.

This is the confirmation that everyone needs in life – you are not alone.  You are never alone.  As much as we need physical sustenance for our survival, we really need the spiritual encouragement of knowing we are not alone.

How often have you felt alone?  I’m not going to ask if you have felt alone, because I assume everyone knows that feeling – how often have you felt alone?  It’s a difficult time, isn’t it?  Perhaps you have moved to a new home and town and you remember the feeling of knowing no one.  Perhaps you moved to a new school and you remember walking in that first day when you didn’t know anyone. 

Elijah continues on his journey and arrives at Mount Horeb, and is in a cave, and we are told that the Lord was passing by! (19:11 – note the exclamation point).  The idea of God passing by is a way of signifying something very important was about to take place and that Elijah would be in the very presence of God.  Then a wind that was so strong that the rocks were being broken blows through, but God was not in the powerful wind.  After the wind comes an earthquake that shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake comes a fire, but God was not in the fire.  After the fire comes a sound like a gentle blowing, and in that blowing was the still, small voice of God.

Elijah walks out of the cave where he was hiding and God says What are you doing here, Elijah? (19:14).  Elijah proceeds to tell God about how he had been very zealous for him, how God’s people had forsaken worship and gone after false gods, and how the prophets had been killed, that he alone was left, and his life was in danger (19:14).  I’m not sure why Elijah told God all of this; it’s not like God didn’t already know.  Elijah is venting to God, and God gives him a task and sends him on his way, but not before correcting Elijah about an important point – that is, he is not alone.  God tells Elijah there are 7,000 people in Israel that have not gone after false gods (19:18).  I don’t know how many people had gone after the false gods, but 7,000 people is no small number.  Elijah, God was saying, you are not alone.

Remember this –
1.  You are not alone, because God has brought people into your life to love you.  My life has been so blessed by a multitude of friends.  God has brought into my life so many people who are so important to me, and when I feel alone one of the first things I do is remember that I am never alone.  God has placed people in your life to minister to you and to love you.  You are not alone.

2.  You are not alone because God never leaves you.  I don’t think a week ever passes that I don’t hear someone express their gratitude for the knowledge that God is always with them.  This is a truth that people express in hospital rooms and funeral homes and in counseling sessions and in countless other difficult situations.  And it is absolutely true.  God is always with you, and this is one of the great truths of Scripture.

3.  God wants to encourage you, but he also wants you to avoid being trapped in the discouragement of feeling alone.  Notice that God made sure Elijah had a task and that he encouraged Elijah to fulfill that task.  One of the greatest threats of loneliness and discouragement is the danger of withdrawing into our own lives and that withdrawal leads only to further isolation and more loneliness.  When you feel alone, step into the life of someone else.

4.  Others know what you are experiencing.  One of the great advantages of being involved with other people is the knowledge they have traveled the same roads we travel in life.  Many times I have sat with someone who could encourage me because they have experienced what I may be experiencing, and their understanding and what they have learned is so incredibly helpful.

After sitting for a while in the housing office at seminary wondering what to do, I got up and started to leave.  As I was walking out of the office one of the staff members said Wait a minute, there’s a note here for you.  They handed me a handwritten note and I had no idea who would have left a note for me; to my knowledge I didn’t know anybody on campus, but it turned out that a friend of mine and his wife were there on campus.  He was also a new student and they had arrived earlier in the summer as she had a job in one of the offices on campus, had seen my name on the list of those who had lost their housing, and had left a note telling me they were going to give me a place to stay until I could get settled. 

I can’t tell you what a huge relief that was.  Going from feeling very alone to great relief was a wonderful moment, and it was a powerful confirmation to me of God’s provision.

God doesn’t generally come in very dramatic ways, but he does come to us.  It may not be in a way as dramatic as a strong wind, or an earthquake, or a fire, but he does come to us.  It is often with the "still, small voice" that he comes to us, or perhaps in the form of a friend or loved one, who offers love and encouragement to us.  But he always comes to us, and we are never alone.  May we pray.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April 8, 2012 - Easter Sunday - A Resurrected Life

Luke 24:1-12

A young minister was asked by a funeral director to hold a graveside service for a man, with no family or friends, who had died while traveling through the area. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery way out in the country, and this man would be the first person laid to rest there.

The minister was not familiar with the area and became lost.  Arriving an hour late he saw the backhoe and the crew, eating lunch, but the hearse was nowhere in sight.  He apologized to the workers for his tardiness, stepped to the side of the open grave, where he saw a vault lid already in place.

He assured the workers he would not hold them long, but it was proper to say some words.  The workers gathered around and the minister poured out his heart and soul.  As he preached the workers began to say amen, praise the Lord, and glory.  He preached and preached, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

He finally closed with a prayer and walked back to his car, believing he had done his duty and knowing he left the crew with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication.

As he opened the door of his car he overheard one of the workers say, I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I've been putting in septic tanks for over twenty years.

Cemeteries don’t generally inspire humor, but I think we can say that Easter is a guarantee that death no longer has the last laugh.

There was no humor or joy among those who went to the tomb on the first Easter morning.  Luke tells us of the women, still overcome with grief, who walked to the cemetery early in the morning to finish the task they had begun on Friday, after the crucifixion.  The task was completing the preparation of the body of Jesus.  Their task would not be a pleasant one.  They were two days from the crucifixion and they were going to an unpleasant place.  I cannot imagine the idea of entering a tomb with the thought of fulfilling such a task.

There was no expectation of finding life.  You do not go to a cemetery expecting to find life, but in a place that was about death, a transformation had taken place – life had come!  No longer seen as an end, death was transformed from an end to a beginning.

Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus, but it is also a day that reminds us that we are able to live A Resurrected Life.

Easter, and its resurrected life, gives us a totally new way of looking at life.  Easter allows us to look into the eye of struggle and difficulty and see that something good can come from that struggle.  The Got Milk? campaign has spawned a lot of imitators.  I think someone should make a bumper sticker that says Got Struggles?  It’s okay!  Easter proves that even in our struggles we find something good. The great transformation of Easter is that even death itself becomes something new.

Easter, and its resurrected life, is also what provides the vision to see people in a new way.  Where others saw a thief and a cheat in Zaccheus, Jesus saw something else.  Where others saw a woman to put to death and stood ready, rocks in hand, Jesus saw one who was no different than anyone else – one to be given grace and a new chance at life.  Where Peter saw his terrible failure of denying Jesus, Jesus still saw Peter as a leader and charged him with caring for his people.  While others saw a man living among the tombs as a hopeless case, Jesus saw one in need of compassion and healing.  While others saw a thief to be crucified, Jesus looked at the one hanging on the cross next to his and gave grace to enter his kingdom.  And while others looked at those Roman soldiers in anger and contempt, Jesus said not only to go a second mile when forced to go one mile, but also offered his forgiveness to the ones who nailed him to the cross and to those who trumped up the charges that put him on the cross.

Easter also gives us a new vision for our world.  We all want to complain about the state of the world today, and there is no shortage of things of which we can complain.  I read the other day about possible world events that could drive the price of gas to $8 a gallon.  But I also watched a report a few days ago about reconciliation efforts taking place in Somalia, seeking to bring healing after the terrible violence between Tutsi and Hutu tribes that left hundreds of thousands dead.  In the space of ten days during 1994 over 800,000 people were killed in horrible violence.  Those who committed the killings are coming together to seek reconciliation with the family members of the victims.  I cannot imagine the difficulty of facing the people who caused so much pain and heartache.  But there was a common theme among the victims – God teaches us to forgive others as he has forgiven us.  Isn’t that amazingly powerful?  When there are people willing to forgive such atrocities, there is hope for our world. 

Jesus did not sit with the local group in the market, drinking a cup of coffee and having a gripe session – he did something.  His vision was for a better world, a resurrected world.  He laid his hands on the sick to heal them, he fed the hungry, he embraced the outcast, and he challenged the powers of the world when they sought to oppress and to use and abuse people.

And I would say that faith itself needs a resurrection. 

Andrew Sullivan has an article in the current edition of Newsweek magazine titled Christianity in Crisis.  The cover of Newsweek shouts the blurb Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.  He makes the legitimate point that some people within the church have so damaged faith that it is worth considering forgetting the church and just following Jesus.  I’m not ready to cede that point, but he has a point.  In resurrecting faith it is time to push back against the hucksters, the abusers, the thieves, the hustlers, the finger-pointers, the hypocrites and others who have so damaged the church and faith itself.  There is far too much that we see done in the name of the church that does not reflect Jesus, and if we want the church to remain relevant to our world we simply must say that is not the spirit of Jesus.

There are many churches that need a resurrected view of life.  There are churches falling into decline and struggling to maintain a sense of life and they need to know there is hope and new life for them.  I believe that the crisis facing churches and faith in this day and age may be one of the best things that could happen to church and to faith itself.  I believe it is one of the best things to happen because it will bring about a sense of questioning and introspection that will lead to the renewal that is so needed. 

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Parisian obstetrician St├ęphane Tarnier, who in the 1870s witnessed the death of almost two-thirds of babies born with low birth weight. Exhausted from living with so many losses, Tarnier took a day and visited the zoo. He wandered into an exhibit of baby chickens and saw an incubator in use. Soon he had a similar machine built for human babies, and the mortality rate was halved.

In that case, death led to life.  Easter reminds us that death leads to life.  Receive that life today.

April 8, 2012 - Easter Sunrise Service - What Do We Make of An Empty Tomb?

April 8, 2012
Mark 16:1-8
Sunrise Service

What Do We Make of An Empty Tomb?

In the days prior to Easter I’m always curious to see what bookstores are offering.  Most years there are a number of books and magazines about Jesus in the days before Easter.  This year it was a bit different, as there didn't seem to be as many titles about Jesus.  In fact, it seemed there were more magazines about UK and their national title season than about Jesus.

The resurrection is a great dividing line.  It is a dividing line between faith and skepticism, between belief and doubt – it is a dividing line over how to view the world, history, the past, the present, the future, and ourselves.

We ended our reading from Mark’s gospel at the point when Mark says they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.  That seems like an odd point to end the reading, but it leaves us at the point of so many of the early followers of Jesus – what do we make of an empty tomb?  Most of the followers of Jesus had no other information other than word of an empty tomb.  Very few actually saw the empty tomb, so they were left with the question – what to make of an empty tomb?

We are the beneficiaries of 2,000 years of history, theology, and teaching about the resurrection.  Belief in the resurrection and the understanding of the resurrection as the pivotal event in human history is passed on from one generation to another almost as though it is a family heirloom.

Though Jesus spoke of resurrection, his followers didn’t really expect it, and had a hard time believing it was true, as the resurrection narratives in Scripture clearly show.

How do you comprehend something that is so completely outside your range of knowledge, experience, or expectation?  How do we, to use today’s overused language – think outside the box our minds have been molded into?  How do we accept the impossible as possible, and the implausible as plausible?

Because of faith.

It was faith, awakened in the early followers of Jesus by the resurrection that completely transformed their lives.  How else could this small band of followers, frightened and confused, have gone on to transform the world?

What do we make of an empty tomb?

There is a spiritual side of life.  I was in a bookstore yesterday and picked up a book from a table featuring titles for Easter.  One of the books was from the point of view of unbelief.  I thumbed through it and it was the same old stuff, and what struck me was a touch of sadness because of the inability to see that life is more than the material – more than what can be touched, or seen, or measured in a laboratory.  There is a spiritual side to life.  We are more than flesh and blood, and the resurrection challenges us to remember there is more to life than just making a living and pursuing entertainment.

There is a new beginning for life.  John’s gospel points out that the resurrection takes place on the first day of the week.  That’s much more than just a simple observation – it is a reflection back to the book of Genesis and creation.  This is a new creation.  The resurrection remakes everything.  And the great promise of the resurrection is we get a new beginning.

Like many of you, I have a Facebook page, but I wonder sometimes if it’s a good idea.  And I’m amazed at what some people put on their Facebook page.  Those pictures and comments follow people forever – it guarantees you can’t escape your past.  People like to bring up our past to us sometimes, but the resurrection means we have a new beginning.

It also means God’s great love is poured out on all people.  About ten years ago I was in Wilmore for the Ichthus music festival.  On Saturday evening they have a huge outdoor communion service – over 20,000 people in this large field – and on that particular day an interesting cloud formation floated over the crowd.  As the communion service began, a cloud formed in the shape of a perfect cross began to float overhead.  It gradually moved across the sky, from one end of the field to the other, and the timing was perfect as it dissipated just at the end of the time of communion after passing over the entire crowd.
It was a really great effect to see this cross in the sky passing over this large crowd of believers sharing a tine of communion together.  I think about that moment occasionally, and the idea of the cross covering the world is a very powerful image.

Here is a very important truth – Jesus lived, died and rose for all people.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was not just for you and me; it was not just for people who believe; it was not just for church people – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was for every person alive at the time and for every person throughout history.  The power of the cross and what the cross of Jesus accomplished covers all people, not just some.

What do we make of an empty tomb?  Life, hope, and love, because of the resurrection of Jesus.

April 5, 2012 Maundy Thursday - A Vision to Bind Us Together

April 5, 2012
John 15:9-17

Maundy Thursday
A Vision to Bind Us Together

It would be quite an understatement to say that humanity struggles with division.

Sometimes it is hard to remain bound together as we walk in faith.  This evening, on Maundy Thursday, we come to remember the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.  In John’s telling of the Last Supper, Jesus offers A Vision to Bind Us Together.

John’s telling of the Last Supper covers five chapters (chapters 13 – 17) of his gospel, the longest continual story in any of the four gospels.  The words of Jesus in this passage of Scripture contains his words a new command I give to you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another (13:34), which is the verse that gives us the name for Maundy Thursday – novum mandatum, or new commandment.

This is the vision Jesus gives to bind us together – love.  Love was the foundation of everything Jesus said and did, and it was love that bound him to the cross.  And it was his vision of love that bound together the disciples, a group that under normal circumstances would neither come together or be able to remain bound together.

As a group, the disciples were so different it would take a powerful vision to hold them together.  There was Simon, very much a stranger to us.  We do know he was a Zealot – one who was dedicated to the overthrow of Roman rule by any means necessary.  Zealots hated the Romans.  Matthew, who is more familiar to us, was a tax collector, which meant he worked for the Romans.  How could Simon and Matthew walk together in this small band of followers of Jesus?  Because they had a greater vision, a vision that bound them together, a vision of love.  There was Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were fishermen, and thus small businessmen.  Perhaps Matthew was the one who collected their taxes.  If not, they certainly resented what he represented as one who could tax them at almost any rate of his own choosing.  The others may have been jealous or envious of the favored position of Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  They are clearly the dominant members of the disciples, and of this inside group Peter is clearly the leader.  Perhaps there was jealousy of his important role.  Judas was known to take money from the moneybag held by the disciples (John 12:6), and it seemed to be an open secret, so this was surely a source of division among the group.  James and John, on more than one occasion, asked Jesus for a place of preference in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-45), which did not sit well with the other disciples.  Mark (10:41) tells us the other disciples were indignant about their grab for power.  But it wasn’t just James and John.  On at least one occasion (Luke 9:46) the disciples as a group argued among themselves as to which of them would be the greatest.

But though we read of these conflicts, they are mentioned only a few times.  Considering the dramatic differences and divisions among the disciples, it is quite amazing we don’t read of them more often.  The answer as to why the differences aren’t mentioned more, I believe, is very simple – in spite of the differences and in spite of the conflicts between the disciples there was a greater vision that bound them together.  It was the vision Jesus gave of love.  Jesus’ vision of love was one great enough to unite the disparate band of followers and remains the great vision that unites us today. 

In our broken and divided world, the vision of love is still the answer that is needed.  Love is powerful enough to bridge the divides among humanity, it is strong enough to heal divisions, and it is what is represented by these elements this evening.

Monday, April 02, 2012

April 1, 2012 - Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths: Be Careful What You Wish For

Some years ago, in another community, we had a group of churches that would gather occasionally for community services.  On one occasion our church was hosting, but another minister was responsible for the message.  He called me during a few days before the service and said, there’s a guy running for statewide office and I asked him to come and speak.  He’s promised not to give us a campaign speech.  Is that okay with you?  I asked, are you sure it’s not going to be a campaign speech?  Oh no, the other minister said, he’s promised me.  Against my better judgment, I said, okay.  Guess what we got that night – a campaign speech.  The people who agreed with his politics liked it and those who disagreed with his politics didn’t like it.  And I wondered how I walked right into that mess.

Political power and spiritual power have always been like oil and water – they just don’t mix very well.  We are citizens of two kingdoms – we are citizens of an earthly kingdom and a spiritual kingdom, and they do not always mix in our own lives very well. 

Today, on Palm Sunday, we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, but I want us to examine Palm Sunday in light of an Old Testament text, since we have been traveling through the Old Testament in recent weeks.

Our text today comes from I Samuel.  It’s a passage that is, I think, a parallel passage to the Triumphal Entry found in the gospels.  It is a text that reminds us that the two kingdoms – earthly and spiritual – have very different goals and agendas.

In this passage, and the passages that tell us of the Triumphal Entry, we see the same desire by the people – the desire for a political savior.  Just as the crowd cheered Jesus in large part because they were hoping he would be a political savior, the people of Israel wanted a king – a political savior.
Jesus was not interested in picking up the mantel of political messiah, and Samuel was not interested in anointing a king for the nation of Israel.  Both were well aware of the dangers in what the people were seeking, and they are dangers we would do well to avoid as well.

Power is intoxicating, and corrupting. 
I vividly remember the first trip my family took to Washington, DC.  One of the reasons I remember it so well is because I didn’t want to go.  I had always heard that Washington is one of those places everyone should visit at least once during their lifetime, but my feeling was, why can’t we go to the beach?  Why Washington? Unfortunately, I did my best to make my displeasure known about the trip.  Driving to Washington we traveled through West Virginia, and I couldn’t help but say, all I wanted to do was get out of these mountains and here we are driving through them – and on our way to Washington.  We were going to stay with my brother-in-law and his family and thankfully, I resisted the temptation to complain about that arrangement.  After arriving at my brother-in-laws house and settling in for the evening, we set out the next morning for the train station and our journey into the city.  We couldn’t find a parking place at the train station and once again I suggested we should go to the beach.  Finally, after finding a parking spot, we started our walk to the station and it started raining on us.  After riding the train into the city we arrived at the station by Capitol Hill.  We walked up the steps and right at the top of the steps were two senators talking.  Then we went into the Capitol, and into the galleries, and all of a sudden, I was hooked like a fish who never saw the hook coming.  I was so caught up in what I saw in Washington and thought, so this is how it happens.  You get around power and get caught up in it.  It really is intoxicating and addicting.

And that’s one of the dangers of power.  It leads us to believe that it has an answer to every issue and a solution to every problem and if we can just get our hands on some of that power we can fix everything that’s wrong with the world.

But it never seems to work out that way.

Jesus saw the corrupting nature of power.  After his entrance into Jerusalem he entered the Temple and began knocking over tables and driving out the merchants and the moneychangers and he was not a bit gentle in doing so.  John’s gospel tells us that Jesus fashioned a whip out of some cords (John 2:15), and as he did I can imagine what was going through his heart and mind – heartbreak at seeing the Temple reduced to a place of dishonest and exploitive commerce and a place where the religious leaders were in league with the Romans to exploit people for their own selfish gain. 

Earthly and spiritual kingdoms do not mix very well.
Lora finds a lot of great pictures for my messages, and I appreciate the great amount of time and effort she offers.  This is one of my favorites of all the pictures she has sent to me.  What a contrast in this picture – a crown of gold and jewels with a crown of thorns.

It is a very stark reminder of the opposing goals of an earthly kingdom and a spiritual kingdom.  An earthly kingdom is about ownership and power to enforce an agenda; a spiritual kingdom is about humility and the giving up of power in sacrificial service; an earthly kingdom will use force when necessary; a spiritual kingdom turns the other cheek; an earthly kingdom is often based on self-interest; a spiritual kingdom is about the giving up of self-interest for the interest of others.  In fact, the words of Paul in Philippians 2:1-11 is the best way of defining the contrast of the two kingdoms – Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill or Rights, and the Constitution of a spiritual kingdom.

The power of love is the greatest power.
The Triumphal Entry of Jesus was not the only entrance into Jerusalem that drew a large crowd.  Probably just days before, Pilate would have entered Jerusalem, but not on a humble donkey.  Pilate entered Jerusalem on a war horse, surrounded by all the trappings of Roman power.  But most people have no idea about that entry, and it’s because of the primary difference between Pilate and Jesus – Pilate was about a temporal power, a power of this earth that could compel people to do what Pilate wanted done, but Jesus had the power of love, and there is no greater power.

Some years ago, a friend of mine traveled to a part of the world where followers of Jesus face a great deal of persecution.  He was part of a group of businessmen who went to give business advice, but also in hopes of strengthening members of the underground church.  He met a man who owned a small business and was also a Christian.  Because of his faith, his business was burglarized and vandalized and he was beaten and arrested on several occasions.  In spite of the persecution he faced, he continued in his faith.  How was he able to persevere?  Because the power of love is the greatest power.  The power of love was greater than the might of the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus.  The power of love is mightier than the hatred and the violence that is in our world.  Earthly kingdoms came and go, but the power of love demonstrated by God’s kingdom lasts forever.