Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March 27, 2016 Easter Sunday - What Do You See?

I enjoy the pictures that can be seen as more than one object.  You know the kind – one person sees an object or person, and another person sees something different.  These types of pictures reveal more about the observer than the picture itself, so they become a Rorschach test.

What do you see when you look at a picture of the empty tomb?  The empty tomb becomes a Rorschach test as well, because what one sees reveals much about them.  Do we see nothing more than an empty hole in the ground or do we see the place from which Jesus rose from the dead?

Our Scripture passage this morning, not surprisingly, is the resurrection story.  We will read Matthew’s version – Matthew 28:1-10 –

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

I like the last phrase of that passage – there they will see me.  I like that phrase because it can be understood in more than one way, just like a picture of the empty tomb.  When Jesus says they will see me it refers to more than just their ability to physically see him, but really stands as a way of placing a challenge to all of humanity, for all time – can all those who come after see him as well?

For the next few minutes I want to take the three great affirmations of the Christian faith and apply them to what we see about the empty tomb, and they are the affirmations that Paul makes in that famous chapter from I Corinthians 13, verse 13 – now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love.  These are what allow us to see Jesus.

1.  Faith
I get a lot of emails, like most of you, and the other day one came into my inbox that had links to many articles about Easter.  All of them were written from the point of view of faith except for one, which was titled Why No One Should Believe In the Resurrection of Jesus.  The subtitle was Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence. I’m not sure how that article managed to get in with the others.

I didn’t read past the title and subtitle of the article.  I didn’t read any further because I’ve read a lot of writing from that perspective over the years.  I’ve read all of the claims of unbelief and all of the reasons why we should not have faith, and here is my basic response to the claim that Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence – no they don’t, at least not when the claims have to do with matters of faith.  It’s called faith for a reason!

I think I have taken the time to consider the evidence from both sides of the faith equation and, obviously, I come down firmly on the side of faith.  But it’s not because I’ve been convinced by overwhelming evidence or because I haven’t asked enough questions.  I’ve asked a lot of questions over the years.  I also get asked a lot of questions, and as I’ve aged here is a determination I have come to – I have fewer questions now to ask and the ones I do ask I don’t worry about as much.  I don’t know what the latest upset in the Middle East means in light of the book of Revelation, and I’m not sure anyone else does either.  I don’t know how detailed God’s plan is for each person’s life.  I don’t know why bad things sometimes happen to good people and why good things sometimes happen to bad people.  I have my theories, but I don’t know.  What I do is accept a couple of basic truths – God exists, God loves us, and God demonstrated that love in Jesus.

I don’t wander around worrying, wow, I don’t have many answers.  I believe I have the answers I need, and the rest I’ll take on faith.  In fact, when someone tells me, as the author of that article wants to do, that I need to present some extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims of faith, it only makes my faith stronger.  I have considered the alternative to faith and I have stayed with faith.  In fact, the more I have considered the alternatives to faith, the stronger I have become in my faith.  Though I don’t have the answer to every question, I will always choose faith.

2.  Hope.
I visit a lot of hospitals, and sometimes, as I visit, someone in another room or another part of the hospital will find out I’m a minister and ask me to pray with them.  At one hospital, some months ago, in the short distance from the entrance of a hallway to a nurse’s station, five people stopped me and asked me to pray for them.  The other day someone stopped me at a hospital and asked me to pray with them.  Interestingly, they did not ask me to pray for healing.  Most people would assume that a prayer for healing would be the most common prayer in a hospital, but that has not been my experience.  The most common prayer I am asked to offer in a hospital is to help find a sense of hope.

In visiting hospitals, sometimes you also see extraordinary things happen.  And maybe extraordinary things happen because it is in places like hospitals that people are so desperately searching for hope, which allows them to be open in a greater way to God’s moving in their lives.  Some months ago, as I visited with a patient in the hospital, I was standing at the foot of the bed, and in the middle of our conversation they pointed at the chair next to me and said, very calmly and matter of factly, Jesus is sitting in that chair.  You might be surprised at how often those kinds of experiences happen in hospitals.  And I know there are those who will offer scientific explanations for those events.  Tanya recently recorded a segment of the Dr. Oz show for me, in which he offers all the scientific explanations for near-death experiences, but here is the truth, as I have experienced it – there is so much more to us, to life, to the universe than what can be explained by science.  We are spiritual beings, not just flesh and blood, and we are people who possess souls and those souls need something and the something they need is hope. 

We hear more and more these days about the loss of faith in our culture.  I don’t know how much that is true, but if it is I can’t help but wonder about the connection between a loss of faith in our culture and the rise of addiction and the terrible toll is has, and is, taking on so many lives.  If faith is diminishing, even in small ways, that means, I believe, that hope is diminishing with it, and what can you offer if you have no hope?  As people lose hope they begin to self-medicate, as a way of coping with a loss of hope.

There are so many people who need hope.  The resurrection brought hope to the disciples.  They did not expect to find life in that tomb.  They did not expect to find the tomb empty.  Even though Jesus told them he would rise after three days it was beyond their comprehension such a miracle could be possible.  When hope came to them, everything changed.  Hope always changes everything.

The gospel is a message of hope!

3.  Love
I am often amused at the productions we do here.  I want to clarify the way in which I am using the word amused.  I think they are great productions – Christmas, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Easter, and other times.  But if you could experience things behind the scenes, you would get an idea of what I mean.  Things never go as planned, but here’s what else I think.  That’s okay.  In fact, that’s more than okay, and with apologies to Jane, Tanya, David, and all the others who work so hard on those productions – it’s okay if things don’t always go as planned.  Sometimes, I think, we seek to make church too perfect.  Church should be reflective of life, and life is chaotic.  Life is disorderly.  Life is messy.  And when life is all of those things – and more – we attempt to bring order and control into life.  We seek to control people, we seek to control events, we seek to control worship, and we even seek to control God.  Stop trying to control things.  Let go.  When we are trying to control every facet of our lives and the lives of others there’s very little room for allowing God to move in our lives.  It’s scary to let go, but if we can’t let go there is little or no room for love.

It is under the affirmation of love that our question of what do you see really comes to us.  I believe, as Paul says – that the greatest of these three affirmations of faith, hope, and love – is love.  And that is what I see when I look at the empty tomb.  The empty tomb is the evidence – the great evidence – of God’s love.  And without God I don’t believe love can really exist, because love is a spiritual experience and proves that we are spiritual beings.

No one reduces life simply to the level of what can be tested in a laboratory. Everyone recognizes that life is much more than the sum of its physical parts; it also includes the metaphysical components, and the ultimate evidence of this is our recognition of the existence of love. To me, the ultimate evidence of transcendence, and thus faith, is that of love. In a universe without faith, love cannot exist, because love is a transcendent quality, something that takes place in the brain but possesses a quality that takes us into the realm beyond, into the spiritual.  If God did not exist, if faith did not exist, what we call love would amount to little more than a feeling of pleasure generated by some chemicals in the brain and neural activity or, perhaps, biological determinism.  Love is a transcendent, spiritual quality, and it is one that points to something equally transcendent that is the underlying force of our universe, and I believe that is God.

Mother Teresa said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  All of us long for love and, I believe, faith and hope as well.  These – faith, hope, and love – are the gives that come to us because of the empty tomb.  That’s what I see in the empty tomb.

What do you see in the empty tomb? 

March 27, 2016 Easter Sunrise Service - Life!

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:
‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’”
Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.
11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

There is an old joke about a man who wondered where the sun went each evening when it set.  One day, he decided he would stay stayed awake until he learned the answer.  He found a comfortable place one evening, watched the sun set, and began to ponder where it went.  After pondering all night, it finally dawned on him.  I just said it was an old joke; I didn’t say it was a funny joke.

This morning we are talking about and celebrating Life!  We proclaim life each time we come together to worship, but this day, this morning, it is Easter Sunday morning, when we proclaim with greater enthusiasm.

Life!  What a wonderful gift!

1.  Easter Promises Life Now!
Even if it has been awhile since you’ve been in school, like it has for me, you may remember what you exclaimed when you finally came to understand a concept that had previously eluded you. What did you say when understanding came to you? Most likely it was not I understand, but now I see! In light of the resurrection we can say now I see!

The crucifixion confused and frightened the disciples. In spite of the fact that Jesus told them about his death and resurrection they could not understand or comprehend it until after the resurrection.  The resurrection illuminates everything about life and illuminates everything Jesus taught. The resurrection teaches us, most of all, of the triumph of life.

What has changed in your life since last Easter?  A job change?  A family change?  Married?  Had a child?  Lost a loved one?  A lot happens in a year, and not all of it is easy.  The struggles of life can really wear us down, but Easter brings the promise of new life.  The promise of life is not just a future promise; it is very much a present reality. Resurrection is often thought of as a future event, as it ushers us into eternity, but it is also a present event. Resurrection reflects upon our eternal destiny, but it is about our destiny in this world as well. When Jesus walked out of death and the tomb and into new life he invited us to walk out of death and into new life as well. It was an invitation to become new people in this life. If anyone is in Christ, Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:17, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Resurrection promises that we can overcome the challenges that threaten our lives, it promises to defeat the discouragement that can overwhelm us, and it promises to triumph over our fears. No longer do we have to remain bound by the tomb of an old life, we are invited to embrace new life.

The good news is that God entered into humanity to set things right, to bring life now, not just in eternity. God, in the resurrection of Christ, said to the struggles of individuals and to all of humanity, enough!  Enough to the tomb of hatred, enough to the tomb of greed, enough to the tomb of oppression, and enough to the tomb of human structures that enslave and oppress people. He said enough to the tomb of injustice, enough to the tomb of inequality, enough to the tomb of prejudice, and enough to the tomb of discrimination. 

Life now means that though we live in a world where the strong too often take advantage of the weak, God’s justice will prevail.  Life now means that though we live in a world where so many are poor, God will bring a bounty to all, because the resurrection promises that God not only broke the bonds of death but also the bonds of injustice, of inequality, and of suffering.

I remember the first time that I visited Mammoth Cave.  It is an amazing experience to walk into that vast system of caves, which wander for mile after mile.  It’s amazing to consider the time that went into the creation of that system of caves.  It was one drop of water at a time, one grain of sand, one grain of dirt, one piece of rock.  But over time, what a difference it makes.  One day at a time God has been at work in this world.  One day at a time he will continue to be at work, bringing life to all people and bringing hope to all people.

2.  Easter Promises a Life of Meaning!
One of the great questions of life is this – does my life matter?  Does my brief sojourn in this vast universe, on this lonely planet Earth, in its little corner of all creation, as one among billions of people, over millennia of time, make any difference?

Everyone wants to know their life means something.  We all know what it feels like to go on, day after day, fixing meals, washing clothes, mowing the lawn, going about our work, fulfilling responsibilities, wondering if anything that we do makes any difference.

There is meaning to our lives, because there is meaning behind all of creation.  If this is all there is – this material world – if there is nothing more to this life than simply existing as a random act of creation in a random universe, then there is no inherent meaning to anything or anyone.  There is meaning built into the structure of the universe and built into our lives only because there is a God who infuses it all with meaning.

People often walked away from Jesus as different people, accepting his meaning for their lives.  Not always, but often.  There were those who could not accept the love and new life he had to offer. Instead, they preferred to remain imprisoned behind the walls of their own tomb. They entombed themselves behind walls of fear, afraid to step out into the brave new world promised by God. They entombed themselves in bitterness, vowing to never forgive or forget a hurt. They entombed themselves behind anger, remaining mad at the world and everyone around them. And they entombed themselves in grief, mourning forever what was while forgetting what can be.

Your life, my, life, every life, can have meaning because of what God has done.

3.  Easter Promises That God Is In Control of Life.
The Romans crucified Jesus because he made claims that only the Roman Emperor was entitled to make.  He called himself Lord, Son of Man, and other titles that were reserved only for the emperor.  Think of the Roman soldier who, at Jesus’ death, claimed surely he was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).  By doing so, by confessing that Jesus was the Son of God, that soldier signed his own death warrant by making such a proclamation.

There are people around the globe this very day who find themselves under not just the threat of death, but the reality of death, for making the same declaration.  They are under that threat because of their faith and because someone not want that faith to control their lives.  There are, perhaps, more people under threat of death because of their faith than at any other time in history.  We must remember that many of our brothers and sisters in faith are under such a threat, and we must pray for them and speak out on their behalf, that they may one day enjoy the freedom to believe and to worship as do we.

There is always someone who will make claim to your heart, your mind, and your life.  There’s always someone like the Roman Emperor who will lay authority and claim to our lives, but it’s up to each one of us if we will let them claim us.

The other day I heard a song on the radio that I haven’t heard in a while.  It was a beautiful day, I had the sunroof on the car open, and the radio turned up loud.  The song is by Joan Osborne, who grew up just down the road in Anchorage and the song, which came out in 1995, is What If God Was One of Us.  I like the song, and today – on Easter Sunday – we proclaim that God indeed was one of us!  The Creator and Lord of this universe came to this world as Jesus.  He lived among us.  He grew tired, thirsty, and hungry.  At times, his heart broke over the reaction he received, as he was sometimes despised and rejected.  He wept over the hard hearts that he encountered.  And, finally, he was betrayed, arrested, crucified, and buried.  But he did not remain in the grave.  We celebrate Easter this day because Jesus was resurrected.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And because he was, we have life!

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

March 13, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust

As we continue our series of messages on the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), this week we come to lust.  Go ahead and admit it.  You’ve been wondering what I would have to say about this one, haven’t you?

Does this one make you squirm a bit?  Does it make you uncomfortable?  Talk about uncomfortable; back in the 80s when I was serving as an associate I helped to teach the TEL Sunday School Class (TEL is for Timothy, Eunice, and Lois, and comes from II Timothy 1:5, where Paul writes I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also).  The TEL class, which met in the sanctuary of the church, was comprised of the oldest group of women in the church.  They were a wonderful group, and were like adopted grandmothers to me.  One Saturday evening, I opened my Sunday School book to study the next morning’s lesson.  I was stunned when I saw the title – Sexual Purity.  I was supposed to teach this lesson to a group of ladies who were like my grandmothers?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  The next morning I stood, obviously uncomfortable at the podium.  I couldn’t lift my head to look at them and I mumbled my way through the opening of the lesson, wishing the ground would open up and swallow me.  After a few, painful minutes, one of the ladies finally called out to me and said, it’s okay Dave.  You don’t have to talk to us about this.  I think we’re okay.

Even my computer seemed uncomfortable with this topic.  As I worked on my notes the other day, the program kept crashing, which never happens.  At one point, I noticed I was on page 3 of 940 pages!  I had to delete the file and start over.

Part of the reason why we are often uncomfortable with this topic is a result of the unhealthy manner in which our culture deals with this topic.  Lust, in our contemporary culture, has been primarily associated with that of sex. This is not surprising, considering the way in which our culture is so saturated with sex.  As one writer has remarked, sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times. The Victorians pretended it did not exist; the moderns pretend that nothing else exists.  Lust, however, really encompasses much more. But don’t worry, because this message is family friendly, and as the subtitle on the slide suggests, there is more to this topic than you might think.

If you remember, throughout this series I have referenced a story about one of my seminary professors, who had us list good qualities and then explained how every good quality has a shadow side, where it can be twisted into something far less positive.  Lust is the shadow expression of love.  So this morning, I want to talk about the way in which lust twists love, and how it does so as summed up in three words – objectification, control, and possession.

Our Scripture text this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, and in this passage he expresses what we have all experienced – the battle within us to do what we want to do, while so often doing what we do not want to do.

Romans 7:15-25
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;
23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.
24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

My definition of objectification would be the inability to see something in light of the purpose for which it was created.  In light of that definition we can say that lust can be applied to a person, but it can be applied to an object – a possession – or a concept, such as power.  In fact, it might be accurate to say that the lust for power has been the most dangerous and, perhaps, most common expression, of lust over the ages.  Power is not always negative.  On the positive side, power I can organize people on a large scale in order to provide services and other helpful necessities.  When it becomes objectified, it becomes something very different.  Think about the stories from Scripture that tell us about the way in which power was objectified and hurt people.  A few weeks ago I used the story from I Samuel where the nation of Israel wants a king.  Samuel warns them what will happen if they have a king, that he will force their sons to become soldiers, their daughters will be forced to be bakers, and that he will take the best of their lands and their crops.  Though the people did not heed Samuel’s warning, it did not take long for them to find the reality of his warning, as Saul did exactly what Samuel had warned.  Think about history and all the examples of the abuse of power.  Think about our contemporary world – ISIS, Boko Haram, and the terrible war in Syria that has taken the lives of over 200,000 people and displaced millions.

We can also objectify people, and when we do, we see them only to be used for our benefit and our pleasure.  They are not a person, but an object.  The book of Genesis, in the first chapter affirms the goodness of creation, as God pronounces each stage of creation to be good, but at the creation of man and woman God pronounces it to be very good, which includes a good purpose, and that purpose does not include being the object of another person to be treated in whatever manner that person deems to be suitable.

I think we can all sympathize with Paul’s struggle, as we have those times when it seems so easy to do what we don’t want to do but so difficult to do what we want to do.  Sometimes, I can be at home minding my own business when something takes control of my feet.  They pull me out of my chair and take me to my desk, where something takes control of my hands and takes out my wallet and car key.  I’m compelled to get in my car and a powerful force has me drive west on I64.  That force drives me to the exit and to the parking lot of the outlet mall, where my feet carry me to the Ghirardelli store, where I order a chocolate malt.  I didn’t intend to leave my house and get one, but something took over and before I knew it, there I was, sitting in the store and, very much against my will, find myself with a chocolate malt in hand!

Control is a major issue for most everyone.  We struggle, as Paul describes, to control ourselves, and often without much success, so we turn our attention to controlling others.

Psychologists tell us that control manifests itself in various behaviors, such as intimidation and passive aggressiveness.  Control is a form of abuse, and can take various forms – spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual, and all those forms of control can cause great damage in the lives of those who suffer through it.

Control is not the way in which God operates in our lives.  Look around the world; obviously, God allows the existence of free will.  Sometimes we hear the voices of skeptics who will ask why doesn’t God do more about the evils that take place in our world?  In Mark’s gospel, we find the story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31).  This young man eagerly came to Jesus, asking what he must do in order to be saved.  Jesus replies that he should keep the commandments.  Answering that he had kept them all, Jesus then told him you lack one thing:  go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (verse 22).  The young man turned away from Jesus and left, as he had much wealth.  And Jesus let him go.  It wasn’t for lack of love, as verse 21 says and Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  Jesus did not seek to control anyone, not wanting a robotic response, but appealed to the freewill choice of people.

We’ve all had the experience of walking into a store and our gaze turns to something we want, and we really want it.  We formulate a plan and we work and perhaps even scheme for how we will get that object and make it our possession.  When I think of the idea of possession, I think about a scene in the movie Finding Nemo (you can watch the scene here – https://youtu.be/H4BNbHBcnDI).  There is something about that video that strikes me as very descriptive of one of the basic dynamics of lust – it’s mine!

Lust elicits within us a reaction to say I want that.  It can be a possession or a person, and there is often great damage done in seeking to secure what we believe to be our rightful possession.

Lust does not, and cannot, seek the good of the other.  Love is always seeking to create the best self in the other person.  Lust says that someone else exist to serve us.  Lust is profoundly self-centered, while love is profoundly other-centered.

Philippians chapter two is one of the central passages of the Scriptures, I believe.  In 2:3-4 Paul reminds us that we should 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.  Those words are an antidote to lust.

Always remember that you are not an object.  You were not created only to be controlled by someone else.  You are not the possession of another.  You are a person created by the love of God and called to demonstrate that love.  Allow love to triumph.  Allow love, not lust, to be the guiding force in your life!