Wednesday, May 22, 2013

May 19, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: Relationships in the Modern Age

Romans 12:9-21

There are a lot of ancient books that did not make it into the Bible. 

One of them is called The Didache, which means the teaching.  Much of it sounds like the Sermon On the Mount.  There is one verse that probably kept the book from becoming a part of Scripture – 6:2 If then you are able to bear the Lord's yoke fully, you will be perfect, but if you can not, then do (the) best (you can).

There’s a lot of days I’ll take that last phrase – do the best you can. 

In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says to be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.  Jesus doesn’t add do the best you can.  Throughout the Scriptures we read of what seem to be impossibly high standards placed before us for our behavior and our attitudes.  And sometimes we feel like we just don’t have it in us – isn’t that true?  Aren’t there days when you would like to have a do the best you can?

This morning, as we continue our series Faith In the Modern Age, we come to Relationships In the Modern Age.  I did a message on relationships earlier this year, in the series The Harder I Go, the Behinder I Get, but this is a topic that is always worth revisiting on a regular basis, and this morning we’ll look at relationships from the perspective of how our complicated modern age adds so much stress to relationships.

Our Scripture passage for today comes from what I would call the other love chapter, even though it’s not a complete chapter.  It’s from Romans 12, where Paul runs through thirteen verses about love.  And they’re tough.  Listen to what he writes –

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; 
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. 
 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I have to say, life would be a lot simpler if we weren’t called to such a high standard, wouldn’t it?  I wish Paul had given us a do the best you can phrase at the end of that passage.

As we consider relationships in this complicated, stressful, modern age, we’ll note that in this passage Paul gives us three types of relationships – three circles of relationships:  our relationships with those who are not a part of our circle of family and friends, our close relationships, and our relationship with God.

It’s Not Just the Relationships With Those Close to Us That Matter.

I was driving down Hurstbourne Parkway in Louisville the other afternoon.  Hurstbourne has, I believe, more traffic than any other road in the state of Kentucky, outside of the interstates.  I love driving that road, especially during the busy time of day.  To make things really interesting, the part of Hurstbourne where I was traveling was narrowed to one lane.  But thankfully, there were signs giving ample notice to merge to one lane.  Have you noticed when there are signs to merge to a single lane how many people decide to go as far as they can in the other lane before deciding to merge?  I love those people who wait until the last second.  That is one thing that really gets under my skin.

How do I live up to the call to feed my enemy when I want to run over the person who waits until the last minute to merge into a lane of traffic?

Here is what is so challenging about the gospel – all relationships matter.  Not just the relationships with our friends and our family.  Not just the relationships with the people we love, but even the relationships with our enemies and our relationships with the people who hate us.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:46 if you love those who love you, what reward will you get?

Paul says If your enemy is hungry, feed him; 
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  Are you kidding me?  Unfortunately, no, and it is here where we really test our faith, and there is no do the best you can.

Be Grateful for Difficulty, As It Creates the Bond in Relationships.
That’s a really strange thing to say, isn’t it?  Be grateful for difficulty?  Are you kidding me?  Why should we be grateful for the difficulties that we experience in life?

Here’s why – because they deepen our relationships.  A relationship never really develops any true depth until two people walk together through suffering and difficulty.  Haven’t you found this to be true?  Once you walk with someone through a tough time in life you find a depth to the relationship that did not previously exist.

Paul says to mourn with those who mourn.  When you walk with someone through a time of difficulty that relationship becomes deeply bonded.  Some of you are probably thinking right now about such a time.  You connected with a friend when you shared a difficult time.  You connected with your spouse when you supported one another through a very difficult experience.

Can you have a deep love without walking through difficulty together?  When you share the experience of raising children, when you encourage someone through a job loss, or when you weep over a wayward child the relationship grows deeper.

Never Give Up.
I was never a great athlete, so I never made any of the teams in my high school.  Until my junior year.  That was the year the school added a rowing team.  The school is located on the Ohio River and it appeared I would have a good opportunity to earn a spot on the rowing team (probably because they were in desperate need of team members).  We spent six weeks in conditioning before we ever saw the boat or picked up an oar.  During those six weeks we did countless calisthenics, a lot of weight lifting, and miles and miles of running.  On a crew team, everyone has to be in perfect sync with one another, because once you are on the water it can be disastrous if one person if out of sync with the rest of the time.  As we did our calisthenics, we had to be in perfect sync with one another.  As we did pushups, if one person was not in perfect rhythm with everyone else we stayed on the same number.  Sometimes we stayed on the same number for a long time.  As the coach kept calling out we’re still on number 10 on the pushups I couldn’t help but look around to see who was out of sync.  When I looked around, it was me! 

When we finally got on the water we all thought we were in really great condition, but crew is a really physically demanding sport, and we found it to be incredibly difficult, and it was easy to give up.  There were eight of us rowing in the boat, and I was in seat seven, with one person behind me.  I can still hear him, as we practiced and when we raced, saying over and over, don’t give up, don’t give up.  Don’t quit, don’t quit.  There were a lot of times I needed to hear that.

Paul says cling to what is good, and Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Life can be very difficult.  Don’t give up.  Life can be incredibly stressful.  Don’t give up.  Wrap your arms around someone who is struggling.  Pull them tight and tell them don’t give up.  Don’t quit.

Don’t be discouraged by the pressures of our day and age.  Don’t allow yourself to be worn down to the point where you throw up your hands and say I give up! 

This is what God is saying to us every moment of every day –don’t give up!  Don’t quit!  You may be stuck on pushup number ten, but don’t give up!  Relationships aren’t easy in our day and age, but faith will carry us through. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

May 5, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: The Church in the Modern Age (Part Two)

Luke 10:1-9

Perspective makes all the difference in the world.  Last night I awoke several times and enjoyed listening to the rain.  I listened to the soothing sound of the rain falling against the window and was grateful for a warm, dry house.  When I awoke one minute before my alarm went off and heard the rain still falling my perspective had changed.  Instead of enjoying the sound of the rain, I began to worry about getting out in it to come to church and thought about how it might depress the crowd this morning. 

As I said, perspective makes all the difference in the world.  I was in a meeting in Lexington last Saturday and had a moment where my perspective on a passage of Scripture was suddenly changed.  I’ve read Luke 10:1-9 numerous times over the years, but as I heard those words read at the meeting, something changed in my perspective.

Luke 10:1-9 is a well-known passage about Jesus sending out his followers, and it is often used to remind us that our calling is to reach out to others by going to the people. As I sat in that meeting, it suddenly occurred to me they have been basically irrelevant to us.  They’ve been irrelevant because in our lifetimes we’ve not found it necessary to go out and recruit people, because people have always come to us in sufficient numbers.  For decades, most churches grew simply because people continued to show up.  Church growth programs weren’t really needed, impressive events didn’t need to be scheduled, and engaging worship wasn’t a necessity.  People simply showed up.  Why would churches go out and recruit when plenty of people just showed up when the doors opened? 

Life is much different now.  Whereas people used to come to church out of obligation, few do so today for that reason.  Whereas people used to come to church because it was the right thing to do, that is not a motivating factor for most people today.  Whereas people once came to church because they wanted their kids to have a foundation in the church, that is much less true today (although it is still a strong factor for some, just not among as many people as in previous years).

As more and more churches find their attendance on the decline, they are awakening to the reality that their survival depends upon their willingness to go beyond their walls and attract new people.  Simply put, congregations who want to survive and thrive in the coming decades will have to become much more missional in their orientation, which means to go to the people rather than waiting on people to come to them.

Last week I began the message The Church in the Modern Age, but didn’t get finished, so today is Part Two.

I left off last week after beginning to list changes that I believe are important for churches to consider as they move into the future.  These are changes of a general type more than they are specifics. 

My first point last week was to affirm that The church is not going anywhere.  I was struck by how many people mentioned that point to me after both services.  I think there is a lot of anxiety about the future of the church.  I really believe the church has a very bright future, but in the future the church may look much different.  In fact, I believe churches such as ours face some of the greatest struggles in the decades to come.  I believe the small, family-oriented churches and the megachurches will find the future to be easier than the mid-size churches such as ours.  The difficulty we will face in the future is that we will be too large for some and too small for others.  There will be a shrinking number of people who find our size church to be just the right size.

3.  What are the changes?

We need to listen to the critics of the church. 
Some critics of the church do have some legitimate points to make.  Sometimes, as churches, we can become too insular.  We can become too self-absorbed.  We can become too cold and callous.  We can be too exclusive.  We can be too judgmental.  We can be unfriendly.  We can be too removed from our communities.  We can be irrelevant.  We can be hypocritical.  We can be too concerned with money and power.  We can be too quick to tell people what to do.  We can be too political.  We can fail to be political enough. 

There are many criticisms we receive, and I don’t like when people criticize churches, but the reality is, sometimes they are right, and we need to take those criticisms to heart.

We have to learn to separate the important and the inconsequential matters.
When I was an associate in Anderson County back in the 80s a group of us were playing Rook in the Fellowship Hall.  We were having a grand old time, and I thought they would be interested to know that about fifty years earlier that same church kicked people out of the church for playing cards in their homes.  Isn’t that unbelievable?  Totally silly.  I remember the day in my home church when about half the congregation walked out because of the presence of an acoustic guitar in the sanctuary.  Now they have country line dancing classes in the Fellowship Hall (that really may be going too far!)  If you think I need to loosen up when I play during Singspiration now you know why I look uptight.  The  memory of all those people stomping out of the sanctuary is still fresh in my mind, even all these years later.  Again, totally silly.

Churches can get sidetracked on some of the silliest, most inconsequential matters.

We have to practice what we preach.
People are looking for the church to practice what it preaches.  If we say we love all people, we’ve got to love all people.  No conditions, no ifs, ands, or buts.  People can sniff out insincerity pretty quickly.  That whole love the sinner, hate the sin routine – people aren’t buying it, because they don’t believe the sinner is really loved.

I was told there were certain people I should avoid.  I was told certain types of people weren’t “good” people.  We live in a world that loves to draw its lines and create divisions.  We have the good and bad and saints and sinners.  I can’t even watch the news without being placed in a particular category.  Do you watch Fox or MSNBC?  Can’t I just watch the news?

Everybody has to be defined by a label these days – Republican, Democrat, Independent, rich, poor, southern, northern, liberal, conservative, believer, unbeliever, environmentalist, free-market, straight, gay, and on and on. 

Imagine no lines of division, no us versus them – what if there were one label – child of God.  That’s God’s kingdom.  It’s where every person is recognized as a child of God above and beyond every other label.  But churches haven’t always been good at building God’s kingdom, because in too many instances churches have contributed to the lines of division.

We have to be more ecumenical.
This is central to who we are as Disciples, but we have to push this more and more.  I have to admit that I haven’t been very successful in something I mentioned last year.  I’m the head of the Ministerial Alliance, and my goal was to increase participation in that group.  Wow, has that been a flop.  I don’t know how many churches there are in Shelby County but it’s a pretty good meeting when we have nine or ten churches represented.  Nine or ten!  That’s terrible!  We have to work with one another, because we need to pool our resources and work together to meet the physical and spiritual needs of our community.  No single church among us is equipped to do that on our own.

We have to develop more resources for the physical and spiritual needs in our communities.
I’ve been in ministry a long time now, and I’ve never seen anything like what people are experiencing in recent years.  The stresses facing people are enormous, and those stresses are really taking a toll.  People are stretched to the limits and beyond financially, spiritually, relationally – in every possible way, and the stresses and strain that accompany those stresses are wearing people out.

We must become less institutional in our ministries.
Simply put, we have to get out of our buildings more.  The days of people coming to us are, for the most part, over.  And that’s okay, because from the beginning our calling has been to go to the people.

Worship ought to be joyous.
I can understand why some people are turned off to church.  Church can be boring and tedious. 
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here.  I really am.  I’ve looked forward to church all week.
It’s not that I think we overlook the challenges of the gospel – and there are some very great challenges – but how is it that some churches can suck the life out of faith?  How do you miss the life-changing, world-transforming power of faith?

There have been a few times in my life when I wondered if it was time to give up on the church, but I couldn’t do it.  In spite of the shortcomings of the church, despite my own disappointments in the church, I can’t imagine giving up.  The church is one of God’s greatest gifts, I believe, and I am in it until my final breath.

May 5, 2013 - Knowing God

(Our church has two Sunday morning worship services - 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.  While the worship formats are different, the sermon is generally the same in both services.  On May 5th there were two different sermons, because I did not finish the message in the 11:00 service the previous week.  This is the sermon from the 9:00 service)

Luke 19:11-26

Knowing God

Later this month Tanya and I will celebrate our 29th anniversary, and it has taken me most of that time to learn some things.  One lesson is to listen.  Hearing and listening are two very different things.  For years, I gave Tanya flowers on certain occasions.  The reaction was always the same – she would say I don’t want flowers; stop giving me flowers.  You know what I did? I kept giving her flowers anyway.  She would keep telling me, I don’t want flowers; stop giving me flowers, and I would think what is her problem?  I was hearing her, but I wasn’t listening.  What I finally understood is this – continuing to give her flowers communicated to her that I didn’t really know her, and that’s not what you want to communicate after that many years of marriage.

This morning, we are taking a break from our current series, because I did not complete it in the 11:00 service and I need to keep the two services on track.  We’ll study a well-known, but often misunderstood parable – the parable of the talents.

The parable begins with a man who is making preparations to leave town. He is, Luke says, a man of noble birth preparing to go to a distant country to be appointed king.  Before he leaves he calls in ten of his servants and gives them each an equal sum of money - one mina, Luke says, which was the equivalent of about three months pay. The only instructions he gives to those ten servants is put this money to work…until I come back (verse 13). We are given the results of three of those servants – the first has a 100% return on the money, the second has a 50% return on the money, and the third reports that he hid the money he had been given.

The king was pleased with the report from the first two servants; he was not pleased with the report of the third servant, who earned nothing with the money entrusted to him.  It’s fascinating to read the third servant’s explanation of why he did nothing with the money he was given. He tells his master, the king, I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow (verse 21). That’s a pretty gutsy statement to make to the person who can have your head removed from your shoulders. Imagine walking into your boss’s office and saying, I know you are a hard taskmaster. I know your ideas are not yours but are taken from other people. I know you take other people’s business deals as your own. Anybody want to say that to their boss?

Now, I want you to forget for a moment everything you have heard about using your talents to the best of your ability as the lesson from this parable.  Lay that aside for now because how we use our talents is not the main point of this parable.  How we use our talents is an important matter, but it is not the main point in this passage. 

The main point of this parable is often missed, which is unfortunate, because this parable cuts to the absolute heart of our understanding of God. The main point of the parable is this - the servant claimed to know his master but he really didn’t, because the servant’s actions did not reflect that he really understood his master. His master even points this out. The response of the master to the inaction of the servant is to say - you knew I am a hard man. You knew this about me and yet you took no action based upon your knowledge of me.  If you really knew me, you would have based your actions on that knowledge.  Because you did not act in a way I expected you to act, you really don’t know me.

Here is what this parable teaches us – if we say we know God, we must act upon what we know about him. We cannot claim to know God and not act upon the knowledge of who he is. This is a lesson Jesus attempts to drive into the hearts and minds of his followers time and time again. It is a lesson they sometimes grasp and at other times completely fail to understand. It is a lesson the opponents of Jesus could not understand or would not understand. It is a lesson many people and even many churches either do not understand or refuse to understand. This is the lesson - if we know God it will be proven by how we live.

And Jesus makes sure we understand what it is specifically that we need to know about the nature of God. Notice the context of this parable; this parable comes immediately after Jesus’ meeting with Zaccheus. What happened when Jesus went to the home of Zaccheus?  People grumbled and complained. People grumbled and complained because Jesus dared to associate with a sinner. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner’” – verse 7.

Luke makes a point to say that all the people saw this and began to mutter.  All the people.  Nobody was happy about what Jesus had done.  Can’t you just see and hear these people, all puffed up and complaining about what Jesus had done?  Their self-righteousness comes out because they, of course, know who Jesus should be associating with.  People love to complain and criticize, don’t they?  Why is criticism so often the default position for so many people?  And in the church that is often directed at people not deemed worthy or righteous.

Notice how Jesus responds to those critics Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (verse 9).  The story of Zaccheus and this parable are tied together to make plain this lesson – God seeks to reach all people, no matter what anybody thinks about some of those people, and if we say we know God we must be willing to reach out to all people as well.

Jesus is saying, you see this guy, Zaccheus? This guy you are trying to squeeze out so he can’t even see me? This guy who has cheated some of you? This guy who has aligned himself with the Romans, the oppressors of our country? This guy who you don’t think deserves God’s love? Guess what – this guy is a son of Abraham just as much as any of you.  That is the radical, amazing, inclusive love of God as shown in Jesus.

I believe the same lesson needs to be heard today.  It needs to be heard that despite what some churches say about who is in and who is out of God’s favor, God loves them and asks that his people love them as well.  The lesson that needs to be spoken is that despite the rejection some demonstrate to others because of their political affiliation or political beliefs, their economic status, their social standing, their politics, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, their religious beliefs or any of the other means by which society divides itself – everyone is a child of God and loved by God. And if that is the nature of God, that must also be the nature of God’s people and God’s church.  And that means, I believe, that any church desiring to draw lines and saying this group is acceptable to God and this group is unacceptable to God either fails to understand the nature of God or refuse to act in accordance with the nature of God.

This parable is about far more than using talents; it is about whether or not we really know the nature of God.  If we know God, Jesus is saying, we will be like him in loving people.

It’s not always easy to live that truth when so many people are muttering that we too have gone to the house of a ‘sinner.’  There are some people and some churches who may mutter about us because we are not willing to condemn other people.  There are some people and some churches who may mutter that we are to open and too welcoming.  I say, let them mutter.

Victor Hugo wrote one of history’s great novels, Les Miserables.  Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean and his transformation from a hard, uncaring, and unfeeling man into a kind, noble, generous, sacrificial, and selfless man late in his life. As a young man he stole bread to help feed his sister’s family and was subsequently sentenced to five years of imprisonment for the crime. He considered the punishment extreme for the crime he committed, so he continually attempted to escape, causing his sentence to be lengthened to 19 years.  By the time he was released he was a hard, cold, and hateful man.

Change came to his life on a cold night when he sought refuge from the cold in a church.  He repaid the kindness of the priest by stealing some the silver plates from the church.  He was arrested and taken back to the church and presented to the priest.  The priest, though, did not turn against him, but said the silver had been given to Jean as a gift, and said he also had given him silver candlesticks, but Jean had evidently forgotten them.  The priest sent Jean on his way with these word – My friend, before you go away, here are your candlesticks; take them. Now go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you need not come through the garden. You can always come in and go out by the front door. It is closed only with a latch, day or night. Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use the silver to become an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!

That has strong echoes of how Jesus reached out to Zaccheus, and how he reached out to the woman taken in adultery, and to the woman at the well, and the father reaching out to the prodigal son.  And all those are reminders of the nature of God, which challenges us to reach across every human boundary to embrace all people in his name and with his love.