Friday, September 21, 2012

Good News

Thursday, September 20
I Corinthians 2:1-5

 One of the constant challenges the church has faced throughout the ages is how to communicate the good news in ways that get people’s attention and in ways that make sense.  In Paul’s day, the great speakers of the day were skilled in the use of various rhetorical devices that entertained, persuaded, and motivated people to action.  The best speakers could utilize these rhetorical skills to communicate the best philosophical insights of the day.  We all know that the way a message is packaged has an impact on its reception.  In the modern church, we like preachers who can keep our attention whether through the use of powerful personal illustrations in their preaching or the eye-catching glitz of a compelling multi-media presentation.  Paul seemed to take pride in the fact that when he preached the gospel to the Corinthians, he focused his message on the simple proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The great Apostle admits his fear as he preached to the people of Corinth.  And apparently, he did not try to win the crowd’s favor by impressing them with his intelligence, which was considerable. It is hard to know exactly what powerful acts Paul utilized to demonstrate the truth of his message, but apparently he wanted people to respond not just to what they heard, but what they saw.  In a day when we are easily attracted to the slickest presentation, Paul’s words remind us to pay attention to the substance of the message proclaimed, whether from politicians, professors, or preachers—and then to look for the fruit the message bears in real life.  And as we try to be the church in a media-saturated culture where many voices clamor for attention, could it be that the simple message of God’s love for the world displayed through Christ’s death on the cross and a witness to that message by lives of sacrificial compassion and genuine love might once again be the thing that will change the world?

Thought for the day:  However it is packaged, the good news, at its core,  is that in the cross, God has shown us the heart of God.

Prayer:  O God, help us to be people who can still appreciate the simple truth of the gospel that in Christ’s cross, we see most clearly your love for us and the world.  And as your people, help us to never stop trusting the power of that message, proclaimed by our words and our deeds, to change the world.  Amen. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sermon for September 16, 2012

Living the Faith We Profess

Mark 8:27-38

A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church

Richmond, VA

September 16, 2012



We discover life in its fullness when we learn to say with conviction who Jesus is for us and then align our lives with that profession.


How could giving the teacher the right answer turn out so badly?  That’s what Peter must have wondered.  “Who do people say that I am?” the teacher asked his pupils.  This wasn’t a final exam—just a midterm—just a chance to check in on their progress.  “Is anything I’m saying getting through,” he wondered.  They class responded.  “Some people say you are John the Baptist.  Some way you’re Elijah.  Some say you’re one of the prophets.”   It sounded like the crowds were at least in the right zip code with their thinking.  But the crowds’ opinion wasn’t important to him.  He didn’t want to know what the polls were saying or what the pundits were prognosticating.  He wanted to know what this small group, these twelve he’d handpicked, was thinking.  Were they learning anything at all?

So, he said, “That’s all well and good.  I’m glad to receive your report about what the crowds are saying.  But what I want to know, what I really want to know, is what you think.  What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”  And like the eager student sitting in the front row who has  read ahead and done the extra credit assignments, Peter raises his hand and says, “I know, I know the answer.  I know who you are.  You are the Messiah.” 

In Mark’s gospel, there are no words of praise for Peter’s insight.  There is no pat on the back, no extra credit, no certificate of recognition for getting the answer right.  Just a stern warning, “Don’t tell anybody.”

That’s an odd response, Peter must have thought.  “I thought that’s what we have all been looking for—a Messiah, someone who will finally free us from this oppressive Roman regime.  Why does he talk to me that way?”

  “Don’t tell anyone.”

Jesus knew something that Peter had not yet learned.  Just having the right answer doesn’t mean you comprehend what the answer really means. 

It happens to us, doesn’t it?  We like to think we can see clearly who God is and how God works in the world.  And sometimes after a little prayer and some study, we persuade ourselves that we’ve gotten the answer right.  You know, I really believe in prayer.  I believe learning to spend time alone with God studying the Bible, journaling our thoughts, learning to be still and listen for God to communicate in silence to us, are all very important elements of the Christian life.  But please forgive me for saying that as much as I value prayer and respect people who pray, I get worried when people claim that they understand completely God’s will just because they have prayed.

If prayer is authentic, it may not always make us more certain—but it can make us more compassionate, loving, patient, and humble.  It can remind us that when we do not fully understand God’s ways with human beings in history, that God’s love will in the end prevail.

I hate to say this, but I’ve met some pretty mean people who claim to pray a lot.  Human history is full of examples of people who are zealous about prayer and think they have gained deep insight into God’s well, and then assume that in their certainty, it is their job to impose their vision of God’s will on others.

I don’t claim to comprehend the nuances of all that has happened in Libya in the past week.  I know we had diplomats killed by Muslims who were offended because of a movie made that ridiculed Mohammed.  And from what I’ve read the movie was made by an extreme Christian who wanted to anger Muslims.  I’m sure both groups claim to have gained insight into the divine will because they’ve prayed and studied.  And neither one is in the right however you interpret this tragic situation.  Both sides represent what many critics of religion are eager to point out as a reason for their unbelief—religion can harm people as much as it can help.

Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted Peter and his disciples to be cautious about proclaiming their new conviction that the Messiah had come in Jesus—they only had a surface knowledge of what that title meant—at least what it meant to Jesus. 

As the conversation continues, we see why Jesus tried to slow things down.  He begins to tell them what kind of Messiah he’d come to be for the world.  “The son of man,” he tells them, “will suffer much and be rejected by the chief priests, scribes, and elders.  I’m not going to be leading a revolution.  We’re not marching into Rome with swords drawn and catapults aimed.  Don’t start thinking of yourselves as great military leaders of some war for Jewish independence.  That’s not what I’m here to do.  That’s not the kind of Messiah I’m here to be.  I’m going to suffer.  I’ll die.  I’ll be raised…but it’s going to get ugly before things get any better.”

Peter was incensed.  He was angry.  He’d gotten the answer right and Jesus hadn’t told him he was mistaken—just to be quiet about it.  So in Peter’s mind, Jesus had the story all wrong.  He didn’t understand what  the Messiah was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it.  Peter took Jesus aside and chewed him out…rebuked him.  (The next time you get a good chewing out, just remember to tell yourself it’s not that bad, you’ve just been rebuked). 

 But Jesus wouldn’t have any of it.  So Peter goes from being the star pupil to being the goat.  He goes from feeling pride that he’d cracked the mystery of Jesus’ identity to being told that he was no better than the devil, “Get behind me Satan.”  Now who was being rebuked?  

No, Peter hadn’t gotten the answer itself wrong.  He just didn’t understand what the answer meant to Jesus.  Jesus had a different idea about what it meant to be the Messiah.  And if Jesus’ idea of what it meant to be the Messiah was different from Peter’s, that meant that what was going to be expected from those who followed Jesus was going to turn out to be quite different from Peter and his friends had envisioned.  If suffering on a cross was to be the destiny of Jesus, then the disciples had to assume that Jesus was serious about the cost that would be involved in following him.

These are not easy words to live into or apply.  I struggle with them no less now than when I encountered them many years ago.  It seems that Jesus is asking those who follow him to adopt his example of complete self-giving as the guide for their lives.  In those moments when I am inclined to romanticize the potential heroism that might come to those who make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, I find it very hard to embrace this as a guide for everyday life.  Most of us want to live—and live well.  Most of us have other obligations—like families to feed, and loved ones to care for.  Living a life of radical discipleship might be all right when you’re single in your 20’s, but what do you do when you’ve got tuition payments to make for your kids and obligations to a spouse?  And even if you could find some way to provoke the ruling authorities to punish you because of your faithful Christian witness, what good would it really do in the long run?  Would your annihilation really make a difference in the world?

So, we play it safe.  We become content to be comfortable Christians.  I’m not criticizing—I’m there, too.

So, we gloss over this passage and look to Rienhold Niebuhr to help us out, at least I do.  For Niebuhr reasoned that this ideal of self-sacrificial love is helpful, but it is something that can never be fully attained or realized in this world.  We can only aspire to it, let it judge and inform our actions.  We live in a sinful world, not an ideal one.  And in that real world, sometimes you have to strive for the greatest good possible in a given situation, not some abstract ideal of sacrificial love.  So, you may have to make choices not between good and evil, but between the lesser of several evil options—like whether to repel a dictator with a massive army or an atom bomb.

For instance, we hear a lot about poverty these days.  There are some 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., more people in poverty than at any time in the last 50 years.  And I’d like to do something about that—and many of you would, too.  But you know, if Jesus were here, he’d not only try to do something about it, but I think he’d become poor himself.  He’d take to the streets and go visit people in their tents on the islands in the river—maybe live out there himself.  I can’t do that—or maybe if I’m honest I’ve got all kinds of reasons or excuses of why I won’t.

We’re involved in all kinds of violence around the world.  We’ve tried for centuries to solve our problems with warfare.  But when push came to shove, Jesus disappointed Peter and others in part because he wasn’t willing to embrace the option of violence to secure the goals he had in mind for his kingdom.  And the earliest Christians all believed that to be a disciple was to follow Jesus and refuse to kill, thus making the Roman authorities angry because they would not participate in war.  But, I’m not sure I can pronounce myself absolutely opposed to violence in every situation.  I’d like to.  I really would.  But, what do you do if you’re attacked on the street?  Or a despotic ruler tries to advance his cause through domination of others by military superiority?  Aren’t you shirking your duty to defend innocent people if you say, “I can’t do that, I follow Jesus.”  Wouldn’t we be in terrible shape if no one took on the burden of defending innocent life by being a police officer or soldier? 

It’s a lot of trouble to hang around with Jesus.  That’s what Peter found.  Even when you get the answer right, you may not get it completely right.

And I’ve come to believe that there may be different, though equally valid, ways of answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus is one of those people whose identity, meaning, and purpose, really can’t be reduced to a slogan, motto, sentence, or sound bite.

And though Jesus may mean different things for many of us at different times in our lives, we know that Jesus is at the one around whom we want to focus our lives as individuals and our life together as a community.

At our church planning day a few weeks ago at Richmond Hill, someone said that we needed to remember in all we did here at Centenary to keep Jesus at the center.  We didn’t spend a lot of time in theological debate trying to unpack that, though I suspect that could have been not only an interesting exercise, but a fruitful one.  In the end, that is what’s important, isn’t it?  Keeping this strange, compelling, sometimes confusing, often challenging figure at the center of all we do.

“Who do you say that I am?”  That was Jesus’ question to the disciples.  And that is the question he still poses to you and me today.  “Who do you say that I am?”
In a sermon on this passage from Mark’s gospel several years ago, John Buchanan, the pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago said,

“I cannot read this text, the time when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’  without remembering a lesson my father taught me. I’ve told this story before, but over the years it has become even more important and more precious to me. I had just preached my first sermon in my home church after my ordination. I chose this passage as my text. I chose it because it was the passage on which I had written my thesis to graduate from divinity school. I knew, or thought I knew, everything there was to know about this passage. My sermon was, I thought, brilliant, a small, tight, well-reasoned academic thesis, full of quotes and citations. Afterward, sitting in the living room when the family lunch was over, Dad complimented me, said he was proud of me. And then he taught me a lesson of faith. ‘You told us what everybody else in the world thought about Jesus. Next time, leave some time at the end for what you think.’”[1]

My friends, there is probably only one really good reason for me to invite you to be part of this community of faith.  And that is here, I believe, you will find people who will walk with you as you wrestle with that question, “Who do you say that I am?  Who is Jesus for you?” 

There are all kinds of resources available to help us.  The statements of Scripture, the tradition of the church, the decisions of ecumenical councils, the writings of theologians, past and present, and more than anything the testimony and example of real live Christians here in this congregation, to name but a few.   But the truth is, none of those may adequately speak for or to you.  You may not yet fully understand or even care how the three persons of the trinity relate to one another.  You may not think the early church’s formulation of how the divine and human natures relate to one another in the person of Jesus Christ makes much sense in the 21st century. 

But for many of us, this question is a question of life and death, of whether or not God loves us and cares for us just as we are.  It is a burning question about whether there is any path open to us to lead this life God has given us with joy and purpose and meaning.  It is an unrelenting concern deep within us whether or not there is some truth by which we can live our lives—not truth in some narrowly, exclusive, or judgmental sense, but truth in the sense that we begin to recognize amid all the suffering, pain, and imperfection of our world, and amid all the brokenness of our lives, there really is something worth living for.

And so, I invite you to keep trying to answer that question that Peter was bold enough to try to answer.  The thing I admire about Peter isn’t that he had it all figured out, but that he was willing to take a chance on telling Jesus what he thought he knew.  Yes, Jesus rather unceremoniously corrected him.  But Peter stayed with Jesus.  He stayed with the question.  And what he learned was that Jesus had come to show the world a God who loved the world so much, that he would suffer any difficulty to make that love known.  And following that path gave Peter and everyone else who joined him something worth living for.

I don’t have all the answers, and the answers I thought I had found 30 years ago aren’t the same answers that I live with today.  But I invite you to keep trying to answer that question for yourself.  I invite you to take the risk of walking with Jesus to see where he leads you and what he makes of you.  I am sure of this—if you walk with Jesus long enough, you will find in him the God who never leaves, abandons or forsakes you.  You will find the God who forgives sins, who accepts you as you are where you are, and works with you to make you the very best person you could hope to be.  You will find the God who begins to take your unique talents, gifts, abilities, and desires, and uses them to reflect God’s love to the world.  You will find the God who never gives up on you.


Sermon from September 9, 2012

Jesus’ Disturbing Presence
Mark 7:24-37
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
September 9, 2012
 Just when we think we have Jesus figured out, he says something that puzzles us, making us realize that his disconcerting presence is what shakes us from complacency and leads us to salvation!
I read a good book on preaching awhile back entitled The Four Pages of a Sermon by Scott Wilson.  He argues that a sermon should have four major movements as it deals with a biblical text so that a sermon has theological substance and integrity.  He says that the first page or movement of a sermon is to identify what he terms “trouble in the Bible.”  Every text he says, has some kind of conflict, problem, or difficulty within it and the first task of interpreting a passage is to identify that.  As you read this passage from Mark 7, it’s a bit overwhelming—like many of our lives the trouble implied here operates in multiple ways and at multiple levels.  There’s almost too much trouble, too many problems, too many difficulties in this passage.
For instance, there is a woman who has a little daughter with an unclean spirit who comes seeking Jesus’ help.  There’s trouble enough for one sermon right there—a child whose behavior is so difficult to control, manage, or understand, a child who suffers from some mental, emotional, or spiritual difficulty so profound, that the poor mother is so desperate for help that she takes off on her own, leaving the daughter behind, presumably in the care of another, to try to find help from this Jesus she’s heard about.  Who among us cannot feel her sorrow, disappointment, her anxiety and worry as she strikes out to get help.  Who among us cannot sympathize with her in her attempt to do all in her power, regardless of how taxing or humiliating, to get help for her daughter.  It would not be fruitful to speculate very much as to what kind of affliction troubled her child.  It is not easy to translate neatly the category of demon possession into a 21st century scientific mindset.  But you can sense her desperation.  You know how parents suffer when a child is not well, not whole.  Someone has wisely said that parents are  only as happy as their saddest child.
But that is not all the trouble in this text.  She is not a Jew like Jesus and those who first follow him.  She is aware—very aware, as the writer of Mark’s gospel must have been—of the chasm between Jew and Gentile.  We often look at that gap from the standpoint of Jews who thought of Gentiles as unclean or inferior.  So, she may have rightly assumed that Jesus, a Jew, a leader of this exciting new Jewish religious movement, would not want to get too close to her, a Gentile woman, a Syro-Phoenician woman as Mark describes her, or her problem.    After all, Mark does note that she approaches Jesus, not as an equal, but comes and bows down at his feet.   It’s as if she assumed her inferiority to Jesus.
And if that is the case, Jesus response to her seems to verify her assumption.  Bowing and begging before the Jewish teacher, this Gentile woman pleads for Jesus to make her daughter well, to cast out the demon that troubles her and robs the whole family of life and joy.  Jesus’ response sounds like a taunt of a winner to a loser in some contest, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 
How’s that for a religious leader trying to attract followers—calling someone seeking his help a dog.  It is not a euphemism, but an insult.  Not only do you have a child with profound problems, you all are dogs.
It’s like being reminded that you wouldn’t be poor if you’d just get a job after you’ve pounded the pavement for weeks looking for one.
What are we to make of Jesus as God’s representative?  Another layer of trouble added to the woman’s real problems.  Jesus’ troublesome response is exacerbated when we remember the gospel reading from last week that had Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on the external aspects of the law, like washing your hands in the right way at the right time while neglecting the love of God and love of neighbor.  How could that person be the same as the one in this passage—the person who seemed willing to stretch if not break the bounds of Jewish law to show compassion to all people now apparently calling someone of a different racial and ethnic background—with huge problems weighing her down on top of that—a dog? 
Well, there are several creative ways of trying to explain this confusing response offered.  One, that I  like, and have probably offered to you before is that Jesus himself was just wrong.  Being fully human, he, like some of us at times, was not always consistent with his professed beliefs, ideals, and convictions.  Jesus still had some blind-spots, some residual attitudes of prejudice and bigotry from his upbringing.  The problem here, of course, is that the church has not only taught Jesus’ full humanity but his full divinity.  The church has held that Jesus was like us in every respect except one—he was without sin of any kind.  Attributing to Jesus any kind of imperfection or need for further growth in understanding or grace seems to nullify this notion of his divine perfection. 
On this reading, then, the Syro-Phoenician woman, a Gentile, one assumed by Jews to be inferior in status and spiritual understanding, becomes Jesus’ teacher.  She is determined to do all in her power to gain her daughter’s health, “Sir,” even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus got her point.  Jesus relented and told her to go home to her daughter—the demon would be gone!  The best you can say about Jesus on this reading is that he was teachable, open to learning and correction, and a gracious loser when he realized that someone had gotten the better of him in a religious debate. 
Another, even newer approach to Jesus’ disturbing response is that in fact, the relationship between the Syro-Phoenicians and the Jews was more complex than condescension from Jew to Gentile.  Indeed, in this particular instance, the tables might be reversed.  Some commentators have noted that the Syro-phoenicans who lived in the larger cities depended on the rural, outlying areas farmed by many Jews for their supply of food, and when times were tough, like a drought, the Jews suffered while the Gentiles in the cities bought up their food.  And so, on that interpretation, the Syro-phoenician woman is seen by Jesus as a woman of privilege who can run down a miracle worker whenever she needs one and demand that he do what she commands. Thus, Jesus is expressing in his seemingly sarcastic response the bitterness of his people toward those more well off who think they can have whatever they want whenever they want.
If there is even a grain of truth in that reading, it serves to remind us that all human relationships are more complex than they appear on the surface—issues of power, equality, respect, and problems with prejudice and bigotry are never far from us—any of us-- whenever we relate to one another.  Whenever we think that the time in which we live is uniquely complex because of the multicultural reality of our city or nation, we just need to remember this awkward conversation between a Jewish man and Gentile woman, each of whom trying to figure the other out,  had certain preconceptions about the other as they talked, to realize that life in the first century was no less complicated than working relationships among rich and poor, black and white and Hispanic and Asian, straight and gay, in Richmond Virginia. 
Trouble in many forms and with many layers here in the Bible.
The second half of the passage I’ll address more briefly.  A deaf man with an impediment in his speech is presented to Jesus.  This interaction is more straightforward, more dignified, really.  Refusing to turn his ministry to this man into a religious spectacle, Jesus pulls him aside and privately puts his fingers in his ears and spat and touched his tongue—an intimate encounter—a touch from one human being to another.  He said, “Be opened,” and immediately his ears were opened and his tongue released.  Though Jesus instructed the people to be silent lest others misunderstand and draw the wrong conclusions, those who knew what had happened could not help themselves.  They were astounded beyond measure, Mark reports, and went about saying to any who would listen, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
As I think about these two incidents and all the trouble faced by the people we read about—the girl possessed by the demon and her anxious, worried,  mother and Jesus’ apparent unwillingness at first to her plea,  and the man who was deaf and had difficulty speaking, what is it that makes the difference?  What is it that turns these situations around so that Jesus is willing to heal a Gentile mother’s little girl, and is willing to cure the deaf man? 
It seems to me that the common thread that turns all this trouble into something beautiful is Jesus.  Jesus is finally the one who makes both people whole again.  But I think there’s another thread that is just as important as that obvious one—and it is that in both cases those who were afflicted had somebody who loved them enough to do all in their power to connect them to Jesus.
The little girl’s greatest asset was a mother who loved her so much that she would seek out Jesus, humble herself publicly by falling at his feet, and beg him to heal her.  And when he didn’t seem interested, when it seemed he was more interested in trading insults, she was ready to argue with the great teacher in public—respectfully mind you—until she was blue in the face if that is what it would take, to help her little girl.
We don’t know the names of the people who loved the deaf man.  Mark simply says, “They brought him to Jesus…”
They loved their friend enough to go to the trouble to take him physically to the presence of Jesus—the one they believed could make all the difference in the life of their friend.
Now, it would be natural for me to move from that claim to admonish and encourage each of us to be like that mother, like those friends, and love other people enough to do all in our power to help them to connect to the love and power of God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.  And that would be a valid and worthy admonition all of us need to hear.
But I want to move in another direction and ask you, “Who was it who helped you connect with God when you needed God’s help the most?  Who was it who stood up for you when others might have given up on you?  Who was it who refused to lay back until you were smart or wise or strong enough to seek help for yourself and took you by the hand or the knap of your head and said, “We’re going together to the one who will make a difference in this situation, in your life?”
Think about with me a moment—all of us who have been touched, healed, and transformed by God’s grace have had someone, or many someones, who have helped us find and experience the love of God.  Most of us have had someone help us through some crisis or time of trouble.  Most of us have had someone who stood by us when we made some huge mistake.
Moses had a mother who loved him so much she was willing to part with him in hope that he would be raised a free person by someone else.  Can you imagine how she felt when she made that little basket, put him in the river, and watched anxiously as Pharaoh’s daughter found her baby.  Moses had a father-in-law, Jethro, who helped him figure out how to organize the people of Israel more efficiently so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by trying to resolve everyone’s complaints and problems on his own.
Ruth found a sturdy, life-transforming faith from the example of her mother-in-law Naomi that changed her life and evoked such loyalty and love that after both their husbands had died, Ruth told Naomi wherever she went, she would never leave her side.  Ruth, the great grandmother of King David. 
Who has helped you when you were down and discouraged?  Who stood by you when you struggled with some problem?  Who helped you to trust that God’s grace and love was not just for all humanity, but for you?
Saint Augustine is certainly one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church for both Catholics and Protestants.  He was steeped in pagan learning, a master rhetorician.  But he looked for happiness in all sorts of places.  He fathered a child out of wedlock.  He tried different religious sects—the Manichaens, for instance.  All along the way, though, his mother, Monica worried over him, loved him, and never quit praying for him until he heard a voice in a garden one day tell him to pick up a Bible and read and he became a Christian.  We would not have those great theological works that unpack the meaning of history, the understanding of God as trinity, and the way grace operates in the human heart had it not been for a mother who loved her son and stood by her.
We’re here today because of a movement John Wesley began in England in the 1700’s.  Our very name as a congregation derives from the 100th celebration of the beginning of the Methodist movement in England.  But Wesley also had other folks who helped him when he was down.  Oh, like many people in the early years there was his mother Susanna who taught him the faith, but after he failed as a missionary in Georgia and felt washed up as a missionary and was struggling with his own doubts, Moravians like Peter Boehler encouraged him to seek a personal faith that gave him the assurance in his soul that he was a child of God.
Who was it that helped you?  Who loved you, believed in you, stood by you and helped you grasp the good news that God loves you, t hat God would never give up on you, that God has a purpose and a plan for you?
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University has explored how it is that people make everyday ethical decisions. Many people, he found, perform deeds of compassion, service, and mercy because at some point in their past someone acted with compassion toward them. He wrote, "The caring we receive may touch us so deeply that we feel especially gratified when we are able to pass it on to someone else."

He tells the story of Jack Casey, who was employed as an emergency worker on an ambulance rescue squad. When Jack was a child, he had oral surgery. Five teeth were to be pulled under general anesthetic, and Jack was fearful. What he remembers most, though, was the operating room nurse who, sensing the boy's terror, said, "Don't worry, I'll be right here beside you no matter what happens." When Jack woke up after the surgery, she was true to her word, standing right there with him.

Nearly 20 years later, Jack's ambulance team is called to the scene of a highway accident. A truck has overturned, the driver is pinned in the cab and power tools are necessary to get him out. However, gasoline is dripping onto the driver's clothes, and one spark from the tools could have spelled disaster. The driver is terrified, crying out that he is scared of dying. So, Jack crawls into the cab next to him and says, "Look, don't worry, I'm right here with you; I'm not going anywhere." And Jack was true to his word; he stayed with the man until he was safely removed from the wreckage.

Later the truck driver told Jack, "You were an idiot; you know that the whole thing could have exploded, and we'd have both been burned up!" Jack told him that he felt that he just couldn't leave him.[1]

Many years before, Jack had been treated compassionately by the nurse, and because of that experience, he could now show that same compassion to another. Receiving grace enabled him to give grace.


I know there are tragic cases of people who never seem to be offered that grace and compassion by anyone.  They are abused and mistreated from birth and some of them survive and overcome and some are so wounded and scarred that they cannot function in healthy ways, and in some rare instances those people inflict the cruelty they have received on others.  If you are a stranger to the compassion of Christ, I have an invitation to you this morning—let this church family show you that compassion.  Let this community of faith be the place where you find healing, mercy, and strength.  Because the truth is, all of us need  God’s mercy.  Every one of us needs someone to come our way and help us find that mercy.  And when that happens, then a beautiful process is set in motion whereby a broken world is healed as the mercy and healing of Christ flows from one person to another.  May that happen for you, for me, for all of us here today!  Amen. 

        [1] Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue, The Christian Century (March 7, 2006), 17.

Who is Jesus for You?

Wednesday, September 19
Scripture Reading—John 7:25-36

The heart of the Christian faith is not a doctrine, institution, creed, book, or event—as important as all of those things are—but a person.  All of those other things arise because of the world’s experience with Jesus Christ.  The heart of our Christian experience involves our encounter with Jesus.  But, it has never been a simple task to decide exactly what to make of Jesus.  If the New Testament is anything, it is the record of people trying to understand who Jesus is.  And if God truly is present in some unique, unparalleled way in Jesus, then we are challenged to ask ourselves what this means for the way we understand God and , yes, the way we understand ourselves.  Jesus stirred controversy in Jerusalem, according to John’s gospel.  Some in the crowd sensed that God was doing something new in the world in Jesus.  But the crowds also had some preconceived ideas about what they thought the Messiah would look like, how he would enter the world, and what his agenda would be.  Jesus didn’t seem to fit neatly into all their stereotypes.  “Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” (vs. 27)  People assumed that the Messiah would be some kind of spiritually superior being whose mode of entry into the world itself would signal his uniqueness.  Jesus was born of a human mother in a manger.  In short, Jesus exclaimed in the temple, that the people didn’t understand him or his mission because they really didn’t understand God’s ways or Jesus’ unique relationship with God.  Some were ready to kill him.  Others were convinced that they’d seen enough already to know that the redeemer of Israel and the world had come.   If you and I do believe God has come to the world in the person of Jesus, then we are faced with the question of what difference it makes for us, and what difference it makes in the way we order our lives.  We may all hear God’s call to us through Jesus in different ways.    Some of us hear an invitation to reach out to God and receive forgiveness of sin.  Some of us hear an offer of unconditional acceptance and mercy.  Some of us hear a call to deny ourselves and serve others.  Some of us hear a call to radically change the direction of our lives so that we encounter God among the people Jesus seemed most at home with—the poor, the sick, the broken, the outcast.

And our encounter with Jesus may mean different things to us at different times in our lives.  But one thing is for sure, if we take Jesus seriously, we’re never freed from wrestling with the question he continually poses to us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon for Sunday September 2, 2012

Deep Change
Mark 7: 1-24 (selected verses)
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, Virginia
September 2, 2012



Jesus offers us authentic, inward change that reflects the love of God to the world. 



As some of you know, I attended college at Oral Roberts University.  One of the interesting memories I have of being there was the way meal tickets were distributed each month.  ORU had a dress code.  Girls were supposed to wear dresses to class, guys had to wear ties.  It was rather odd to see guys in blue jeans, polo shirts and ties.  They met the letter of the requirements, but I’m not sure that was the look the requirements sought.  For the guys to get their meal tickets each month, you had to go through hair check.  Your hair was supposed to be no longer than the middle of the ear and it was supposed to be off your collar.  You’ve never seen so many interesting ways for guys to lower the collars of their shirts.  Occasionally, someone’s hair would be a bit too long, either because they hadn’t taken time to get a haircut or because they simply didn’t want to.  So, if someone’s hair was too long, to pass hair check and get the meal ticket, some guys would put on their best three piece suit, pull their shirt collars as low as they could get them, and get their biggest black leather Thompson chain reference Bible.  Surprisingly, this often worked.  Somehow, the external appearance of piety made the examiners of the hair length think that, even if the hair was a bit long, this was a person of great spirituality.  How could you deny a meal ticket to someone like that?


 One of the things we get better at the longer we’re around the church is how to look, act, and speak like we’re really religious.  We learn how to give the impression that we have it all together, that we are righteous, holy, and pure.  We know there is a certain way to act, speak, and look when you’re in church.  But that outward appearance may not always reflect what’s the real state of our heart.  In fact, we often begin to assume that if things look outwardly proper, that we are in fact all right inwardly.


One of the main tenets of Jesus’ teaching was that it was not the outside appearance of a person that mattered, but the inward state of her soul.  It wasn’t whether an institution observed all the niceties of religious tradition, it was whether it reflected real love for God and neighbor in all that it did.  Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of his day because his disciples did not scrupulously observe the tradition of ceremonially washing their hands prior to eating.  Jesus not only criticized these pious folks because they had gotten obsessed with the letter of the law rather than focusing on the great principles on which it rested.  He said, “Listen to me, all of you and understand.  There is nothing which goes into a person from outside which can render him unclean; but it is the things which come out of a man which render him unclean.”  He continues “Do you not understand that everything that goes into a man from outside cannot render him unclean, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and it is then evacuated from him by natural bodily processes?  What comes out of a man, that is what renders the man unclean.  It is from within, from the heart, that there come evil designs, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetous deeds, evil deeds, guile, wanton wickedness, envy, slander, pride folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they render a man unclean.”


Some have said that though it may not seem so to us now, this may well have been the most revolutionary thing Jesus said in the New Testament.  The tradition of the elders which had developed layer after layer on top of the law put much emphasis on how what went into a person could make them ritually and ceremonially unclean, thus separating them from God and the community of faith.  Do you remember the long list of animals in the book of Leviticus that are called unclean, and thus forbidden for human consumption?  Just how serious this was taken is revealed in an incident recorded in a series of books called Maccabees which is found in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha.  The Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes was determined to destroy the Jewish faith.  One of the things he demanded was that the Jews eat pork.  The Jews died in their hundreds rather than do so. 


“Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing.  Wherefore they chose rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant; so then they died.”  (I Maccabees 1:62-63)


 Second  Maccabees chapter 7 tells the story of a widow and her seven sons.  It was demanded that they should eat swine’s flesh.  They refused.  The first had his tongue cut out, the ends of his limbs cut off;  and he was then roasted alive in a pan; the second had his hair and the skin of his skull torn off; one by one they were tortured to death while their aged mother looked on and cheered them on; they died rather than eat meat that was unclean.


 Now, I don’t think that Jesus really wanted to deny the sacrifice that people like this had made to preserve the purity of their faith as they understood it.  But you can see that when Jesus said, it’s not what goes into you that defiles you, it’s what comes out of you that reveals the kind of person you really are—some folks who knew the sacrifices made to preserve ritual purity were deeply offended.  Jesus appeared to be making light of some of their most cherished memories and traditions.  Indeed, Jesus is suggesting that their loyalty to these traditions is preventing them from being truly faithful and obedient to God.  That really angered them. 


Do you begin to see why some people resented Jesus so deeply?  So much so that eventually they wanted to kill him.  He not only wanted to enable people to change from the inside out, but he was calling for the transformation of a whole tradition that in his eyes had become legalistic and dead and was no longer a vehicle to encounter the living God but a barrier to that kind of encounter.


 Friends, let’s think for just a moment about how we view our tradition and how we feel about change.  Do we see our history and heritage as a gift on which we can build and create something new, or do we see it as a relic to be preserved at all cost?  Do we see our duty as following Christ’s command to share the gospel with the world or do we see ourselves as custodians of customs?


 I came up with the title of this sermon when I came across an article about a book that’s influencing many organizations and the people who lead them.  The book is entitled Deep Change.[1]


 The author, Robert Quinn, has studied what it takes for ineffective businesses and other organizations to be transformed.  He thinks it is a fallacy to think that incremental, gradual change lasts, because it is easy to undo the changes.  In essence these changes in an organization are usually only superficial.  For an organization to be transformed, the individuals in the organization have to undergo a deep change in their long-held attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. In other words, if we don’t become different people, we can’t expect our business, our family, or our church to be any different.


For a person within a stale, complacent, dying organization to respond to the challenge to lead or initiate change is a dangerous task.  Quinn says that people who feel called to this kind of transformation often feel like they’re walking naked into a land of uncertainty.  Responding to the challenge to lead a group of people in transformation can be terrifying, he says, often leading one to a dark night of the soul.


Is it any wonder that so many of the people God called to speak for him or to lead people in a new direction were so reluctant?  Moses knew how hard it was going to be to take folks used to the certainty of enslavement to the freedom of the promised land.  Isaiah and Jeremiah knew that they would not be widely loved if they challenged the rich in the way they treated the poor and pointed out to the people all the ways they had forgotten God.  Jesus is remarkable for so many reasons.  Here in Mark’s gospel, he’s remarkable because he has the courage to challenge the leaders of the faith he loved so much to focus on the essential principles of their faith rather than the external trivialities.  He was calling people to be deeply transformed and changed, filled with the love and presence of God, so that they could give that love to others. 


There was a time, I’ll admit, when I believed that the kind of changes the church needed to be effective were changes in style, strategy, and tactics.  Different forms of worship, different methods of communication, new forms of architecture.  The story of how I gave up on that way of thinking is longer than we have time for today, but let it suffice to say now, that I think the kind of change we need to undergo to be God’s people in the 21st century has little to do with style, and more to do with substance, less to do with strategy, and more to do with spirituality.  (Talk about deep structure of worship). 


I think this is what frustrated Jesus with the elders of his day—they were just seeing the surface of things.  They’d forgotten the skill of looking deeply into people, their society, their government.  They’d become like many people in our time who make decisions not after careful thought about their own convictions or painstaking attempts to get the facts, but instead are easily swayed by the repetition of one negative ad, one televised image after another.  If our nation faces a crisis, I believe it is a crisis that arises from our loss of the capacity to think deeply about the great problems of our time and to speak carefully and compassionately about our convictions with those with whom we agree as well as those with whom we disagree.  We face great problems but are more interested in labeling our enemies and yelling at them.  And we’d never be caught dead by agreeing that on many of the great issues that face us, in reality we often agree on more than we disagree.  That doesn’t make for good TV—people sitting around agreeing or talking to each other civilly and respectfully!


A story is told about a newly ordained minister who went to serve his first church. He noticed that on the first Sunday, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the church stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated. The young minister thought this was a bit odd, but he kept going in the prayers—until he began to hear some murmuring between the two sides, then the murmuring turned into grumbling and then people yelling at each other, proclaiming that they were doing the right thing when came to the tradition of the church.

Distressed by what he had seen and all that was taking place, the young pastor went to seek the council of the former, now elderly pastor, who had served this congregation for years. He asked him, “So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?”

The older minister, whose memory was now failing, stroked his beard, replied, “No, that is not the tradition, as I recall.”   “So, the tradition is that they remain seated during the prayers?”

To which the old minister responded, “No, that’s not the tradition either.”

The young pastor threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, “There must be some solution to this! The way things are now, half stand and half sit and all end up screaming at one another during the prayers.”

The old pastor’s face lit up in a smile; he lifted his finger high into the air and said, “Ahh, yes! Now I remember—that was the tradition!”


When we look only at the surface of people, or the church, or the world, we miss out on so much.  We run the risk of missing out on the deeper realities that usher us into the realm of truth, liberation, and life!


In a few moments, we come to remember the price paid by the one who came to call the world to be deeply changed by the reality of God’s love and presence.  We can’t help but remember that this offer was rejected—Jesus’ offer of transformation, his criticism of trivial rituals that obscured the central principles of love of God and neighbor, so offended the defenders of the status quo that they put him on a cross.


But we remember that in the end, his faithfulness to God’s vision for him and the world resulted in the vindication of that vision when God raised him from the dead.  We can make the mistake of viewing the sacrament of communion simply as a duty to be fulfilled, an empty ritual to be observed—or we can come expecting to encounter the one signified in the bread and wine—Jesus himself.  We can come looking more deeply into this moment, beyond the bread and wine to the one who himself is the source of all life.   If our hearts and eyes are open, we can be changed from the inside out.  And with God’s power at work in us, God will use us to bring the deep changes that bring life to our city!



        [1]Robert E.Quinn, Deep Change (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1996).