Tuesday, June 24, 2014

God's Order of Operations



Sometimes during a sermon, something will come out of my mouth that I don't fully reflect on until much later.  I know, that probably says more about my sermon preparation and focus than anything else, but some of those "utterances" end up brewing in my head for days after, even if they don't impact anyone else listening.

We have been going through the story of Moses, using him as an example of leadership - with all its ups and downs - and Sunday we got to the "Ten Commandments."  You can hear the full sermon here.  At the beginning, I talked about how surprising I found it that God waited to this point to give Israel a set of rules to live by.  If I had been God, and thank...Him I'm not!, I would have maybe made it through one of the 10 plagues before saying, "ok, listen up you ungrateful heathens, this is how things are gonna be, and if you don't like it, you can just stay slaves!"

But God didn't do that.  He rescued Israel.  He led them from bondage, led them across the sea, led them safely away from Pharaoh's army, fed them manna and quail, gave them water to quench their thirst, and established a covenant.  It was only then, after all of that Grace that God established His law.  

First, lets not over spiritualize things - yes, God is rescuing them spiritually, but He literally, physically rescues them.  He meets their very human, very earthly needs.  He establishes relationship.  They abuse His kindness, and He continues to pour Grace on top of Grace.  Only after He has completely rescued them and met their every need and created a bond of covenant, only then did God say, "ok, now that you've got all that, here is the best way to live as a community."

Why can't we get that as Christians and as churches?  Why can't we understand that it is only after we have poured love and grace into people, only after we have established relationship, only after we have traveled the extra mile to show our Kingdom nature - only then should we expect them to begin living in response to that outpouring.  Why do we talk so much about people's souls, and so little about their poverty, their depression, their many bonds, and the many structures of this world that continue to create those bonds.   

In math, if you don't follow the correct order of operations - Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction - you will get a wrong answer.  You can do all the "work" right, but still get the wrong outcome.  I think the church in the United States has done a great deal of the "work" right, but we're getting the wrong outcomes because we're trying to do things out of order.

We're declining because our faith has been focused not on God, but on what God has done for me.  Its been focused not on a God that is greatly concerned for this world and every atom in it, and instead has said cynically that God has no use for this broken place, and we're just waiting for Heaven.  We've talked about "personal" salvation, but not about communities of Grace, Kingdom living on earth as it is in Heaven.  We expect people to listen to us without earning the right to be heard, and we've failed to come to grips with the many sins our churches have committed that have made our burden of proof that much higher.

Talking about God as a personal savior certainly isn't wrong.  Talking about life after this life is a hopeful message that people need to hear.  These things, however, shouldn't come first in our order of operations, and we should most definitely not expect people to live by whatever moral code we hold to before we first help them to see why they might want to.  

I think hidden in that Exodus story is a formula for deliverance.  Real, lasting, community based, world changing deliverance.  If only we can get our selves in order.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Its Not the Heat...




   Having been born and raised here in good ol’ North Carolina, I am quite accustomed to our sultry summers.  Those dog laying, tea gulping, sweat dripping summers that you only get here in the south.
   One of my favorite phrases to hear this time of year goes like this, “
oh, its not the heat, it’s the humidity!”  REALLY!? 
   Its funny, nobody talks about humidity, or even notices it until it’s about a zillion degrees outside, then suddenly its “not the heat, it’s the humidity” making me miserable!  Now I understand that yes, the summer time here is humid, and yes, the humidity DOES make the heat a little more unbearable, but come on, nobody ever notices humidity until something worse (like a temperature of 100 degrees) comes along to aggravate the situation.
   Unfortunately, the same goes for our relationship with God.  God is always there.   We know that in our minds, and sometimes we even grasp it in our hearts, but we often don’t really pay Him any attention until something else comes along to aggravate our lives. 
   You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.   Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  - Romans 5:6-8
   Fortunately for us, God doesn’t work the same way we do.  God didn’t wait for US to act to save us, He acted before we even knew we needed saving!  While we were powerless, sinful, enemies of God He acted on our behalf. 
   This is the most amazing thing about God’s grace!  Its complete grace, not just a response to our moving, but a completely self contained act of love that creates a response in us!
   Sadly, it usually take a little heat for us to realize that grace is near.  We usually end up getting burned a few times before calling on that grace to rescue us.  We never really notice it until we get aggravated.
   Gods grace and love is all around you, even those of you who have never called on his name!  Don’t wait!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension



Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”  Acts 1:6-11

A few lessons from the ascension:

First, by the time we get to this scene, where the apostles gather around Jesus and "see him off" to Heaven, Jesus has made numerous appearances to different groups of people.  In these appearances Jesus tells people to have peace, to work faithfully to share the Good News, and that He will remain faithfully by their side.  What he doesn't do is plot revenge.  He doesn't tell His followers to go mow down those Romans or Pharisees or Temple priests that crucified Him.  In fact, he doesn't seem to have an ounce of anger towards anyone, including his friends who had abandoned Him. 
So lesson number one:  Have peace, grant peace, pursue peace.  If Jesus can do it after being crucified, you can too!


Now, here in this passage Jesus is asked, basically, "are you going to tell God about all this that has happened so He will come down here and liberate of from the Romans?"  His response is telling - "you're going to be telling people about me in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and places you can't even imagine exist."  Jerusalem and Judea?  No big deal, "those people" are just like us!  Samaria!  "Those people are dirty, no good, religiously impure, racially different, and just plain icky!"  "The ends of the earth?"But, but, but I thought God loved us more than anybody else and was going to make all of those people bow at our mighty awesome cool awesomeness!"  Lesson two:  If you think God is only for you and "your people," you're just plain wrong.

"Why are you standing here looking at the sky?"  Its almost a sarcastic response from these two men dressed in white, presumably angels (or Siegfried and Roy).  Its a question we need to hear today though.  So many people think that serving Christ is about "inviting Him into your heart," then "staring at the sky" until He comes to get us.  Jesus had already given them their job, and He has given us ours.  Lesson three:  Don't just stand there looking at the sky!

There, that's my three points.... now all I need is a poem to make this sermon complete....

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

Malcom Guite

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What Should Unite Us! (but likely won't)



Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. - Proverbs 31:8

 If you pay attention to the news, or at least to the fake news, such as "The Daily Show," you know that one of the most shameful things happening in the United States today is the treatment that our Veterans are receiving, or I guess more accurately, NOT receiving from the VA Hospital system. 

According to the NY Post,  "...Congress has known since the 1990s about vets at many VA facilities waiting hundreds of days for care and sometimes dying in line.  In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring that any vet needing care be seen within 30 days. The General Accountability Office reported in 2000, and again in 2001, that excessive waiting was still a problem. In 2007, and again in 2012, the VA’s own inspector general reported that VA schedulers routinely cheated to hide long waits."  Source

We can disagree about the nature of the Iraq war, about what we've done and undone in Afghanistan, about how our military has been used or not used in regional conflicts across the globe.  We can disagree about Pentagon funding, overseas military bases, and about our current fascination with drone warfare.  Reasonable, intelligent people can have different opinions about all these things.

What should unite us is this:  When a man or woman, following orders given by a commanding officer who works for our elected representatives, risks their lives and is injured in the process, that man or woman deserves the very best care that this country can offer.  They have EARNED not just our words of respect and honor, but to be treated with respect and honor in a way that meets their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs upon returning from conflict. 

We, as Americans should be holding hands, singing in the streets, UNITED in this sentiment.

My guess is, we will just turn it in to another partisan political game though.  We'll just spend our time arguing about why it is "their" fault, you know, those people in the other political party. 

The facts will easily tell us that this problem has spanned (at least) 3 administrations, 2 Democrat and 1 Republican, it has spanned multiple congresses that have been controlled by both Republicans and Democrats.  The facts will tell us that this is a problem that isn't partisan, but that won't matter.

We're entrenched in a nation-wide conflict spiral, and we are far more interested in our side "winning" the argument than we are in actually getting anything meaningful done.  Meanwhile, as we approach the 18th (at least) Memorial Day since this problem has been out in the open air, the men and women that we claim to love so much will get a free burger at Ruby Tuesday, but not needed medical care.

Why can't we let these men and women use their military ID to be treated at any hospital in the United States?  Why can't we allow them the very best care available, and in a place that doesn't require them to drive past dozens of hospitals on their way?  Why can't we as Americans unite around this?

As believers, following Jesus means speaking up for those who have been hurt.  Jesus in Matthew reminds us that the way we treat the "least of these" is a measure of how we are actually living in relationship with God Himself.  So I believe it is time we as churches begin to do that.  We should be writing letters to our Senators, our Representatives, and our President demanding this get done.  We should refrain from partisan blaming and bickering, just this once, so that we can rise up with one united voice - a true vox populi - that might just save a veteran's life.

Monday, May 12, 2014

God and the NFL Draft



After a thorough scolding, I'm back on the blog today thinking about the NFL Draft.  If you want to know just how much of a grip the NFL has on the lives of sports fans in the U.S., take a moment to reflect on the fact that this past week's NFL draft coverage was the most watched program on cable TV.  That's right, a program that is basically 3 hours of people talking about athletes that may or may not end up being successful players on the pro level had higher ratings than the second round of the NBA playoffs, and any other show that people might find on their cable channels Thursday night.

In many ways, the appeal is easy to see.  These players represent hope for the future.  They represent the "saviors" of dismal franchises like Cleveland and Jacksonville, or that one missing piece for places like San Francisco or New England, which have been just short of greatness for a few years now.

The most fascinating (and annoying) part of the draft is the number of people who make a living trying to say with certainty what each team will do before the draft, how each player will fare as they are being drafted, and to "grade" each team once the draft is complete.

Guys like Mel Kiper and other draft experts spend their entire year focusing on these few days, and yet their track record for getting picks right would be a solid "F minus" in most academic settings.  Despite that track record, they continue to speak with such authority that we lend them our ears, even when we know they can't possibly know, you know?

I think the church can learn a little lesson here.  Over our 2000+ year history, we as the church, and especially we preachers, have been speaking with confidence about God.  We have said things that we knew that we knew about God, only to find out later on that maybe we didn't know so much.  Those Baptists that split into the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 "knew" that God would be A-Ok with them ordaining slave-owners as missionaries, as well as with their members owning and supporting slavery in the Southern US.  The Catholic church "knew" that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that Galileo deserved to be imprisoned for teaching the heretical view that it was the Sun that was the center of our universe.

I wonder what we're wrong about now?  I honestly ask myself that question often, because I think it is pure arrogance for us to believe that somehow, at this very moment in time, we have finally completely figured out God and his marvelous, mysterious creation. 

"For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."  - 1 Corinthians 13:12

It seems Paul understood well that while we can get a picture of God while here in these imperfect bodies, a full understanding of His Will and Way isn't going to be possible until after this life.  That doesn't mean we don't try.  It doesn't mean we don't speak loudly and proudly about the things we believe are clearly important to God.  What it does mean is that when we do dare speak about God, we "clothe ourselves in humility" and "speak the truth in love." 

Then when someone comes along who doesn't see and understand God in the same way we do, we won't stiffen our backs for a fight, we will open our hearts and minds for a conversation.

How much more would we respect guys like Mel Kiper if they started every article or appearance on Sportscenter by saying, "you know, I have studied a great deal, talked to GMs, and tried my very best to understand what will happen in this year's draft, but the truth of the matter is, as my track record shows, there is no way to know for sure what each team is going to do, and which player will ultimately be successful.  That being said, here is my best take on..."

I wonder how much more the church would be respected if we as believers did the same?


Monday, March 24, 2014

The "No Label" Challenge

Yesterday, if you were following the lectionary, you very likely heard the story of "The Woman at the Well."  Its one of my very favorite stories because it is so challenging when we compare how Jesus reacts to this woman, who by every religious, social, and cultural standard would be considered "beneath" Him.

If you want to hear my sermon, feel free to clickity click HERE.

In this one story, Jesus refuses to apply the same kinds of labels that we might have applied to the woman - "immoral," "slut," "sinner."  He doesn't look down on her because she is the kind of woman that has to draw water at noon, during the heat of the day, so that she won't have to interact with the other people of her village, and hear them snicker behind her back.  He doesn't sneer at her for being a "Samaritan," and therefore racially and religiously "impure."

In fact, Jesus' very presence there, the fact he chooses to pass through Samaria, rather than walk around as many "good" Jews would have makes Him bold.  The fact it is He who initiates the entire conversation, going out of His way to interact with the woman makes Him - well, it makes Him Jesus!  The kind of man who cares less about his reputation than offering healing to a hurting soul.  The kind of man who takes people the same way God does - one at a time.  The kind of man that refuses to label.

Jesus, if He walked the earth today, would never use the words "liberal" or "conservative."  I don't think He would have much of a stomach for "Republicans" or "Democrats."  I doubt very seriously He would care much whether we are "Americans" or not.  Jesus would refuse to use the labels that we use every day to divide ourselves.  He would refuse to treat a person as simply another member of a group.  He would refuse dehumanize by calling someone a label, rather than calling them by their name.

At the end of the sermon, I challenged our church members to take the "No Labels" Challenge.  Will you join us?  Will you try to go 1 day, or 1 week without using any labels.  When you engage someone in conversation, can you speak with them without lumping individuals into nameless groups?

I think we will all be amazed at what happens when we take people one at a time, the people who met Jesus certainly were!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Break it You Buy It


Max and Ruby is a sweet little cartoon on Nick Jr. that my son Evan absolutely loves.  Max and Ruby are rabbits, Ruby being the older sister, and Max being the precocious younger brother who is always getting himself into, and out of (by sheer grace and serendipity) big messes.  One episode in particular, Max wants a new T-shirt with a dragon on it, but Ruby has been sent with Max and $5 to be sure that he buys, not a new dragon shirt, but a new pair of overalls.  (Max and Ruby's parents are never around, but Grandma pops in and out to save the day at the end of each episode.)

To make a long story short, Max tries on a Dragon shirt and then is handed a free sample of ice cream, which he promptly spills on his shirt.  This of course means he has to buy the shirt, because, well one thing we all learn and agree to early in life is the old adage, "you break it, you buy it."

Recently in West Virginia and closer to home in Eden, NC, there have been massive spills into rivers which feed local water supplies.  People have been forced to use bottled water, and even now, there is uncertainty about the lasting environmental impact of each of these industrial accidents.

The companies involved should have to pay ever penny for clean-up, every penny for prevention of future disasters, and every penny for any other side effect of community damage, environmental damage, crop loss, hunting/fishing loss, etc.  You break it you buy it.

If anything should unite us as citizens, it should be this very simple principle.

This should be something conservatives demand because if the companies involved are not made to pay, then it proves that government must act to create justice in the marketplace and society.

Liberals should be furious that the regulatory system in place is so lax and limp-wristed that it allowed these preventable disasters in the first place.

Most of all, from my perspective, churches should unite as caretakers of the garden God has given us.  We should unite as people pursuing justice and fairness.  We should unite as people standing up for communities where we live and work and play. 

Now, all of that being said, let's see how it plays out.  Let's see if Duke Power is forced to clean up their mess.  Let's see how the people and the government hold the ironically named "Freedom Industries" accountable for spilling chemicals into a water supply that serves 300,000 people.

"You break it you buy it" should be a universal rule, but I have a feeling that in this era where business interests have managed to politicized environmental watchcare and safety regulations, that neither of these companies end up holding the full bill.