Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Message 2014

(This message was given on Thanksgiving Day in St Paul's Cathedral. The sermon text was Matthew 22:34-40.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It’s a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our stomachs growling.
 
But the real point of Thanksgiving is remembering to be thankful.

Everyone knows that it’s important to say thank you. It’s part of the glue that holds us all together—it’s we teach our kids, right? “Say please and thank you.”

Being grateful—and saying “thank you” out loud—is a good and healthy part of being alive—it’s an essential part of being in a community.

Forbes Magazine says that gratitude in the workplace isn’t what it ought to be. “Only 10% of adults say “thanks” to a colleague every day,” according to the writer, “and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss.” This is important, according to Forbes, because 49% of managers believe that a culture of gratitude increases profits.

Worrying about profits isn’t exactly what I was going for here today. But whether it’s profitable or not, every language and culture has its own way of saying thank you.

For those of you who know Pinterest: There are 377 different ideas for thank-you gifts on the first page alone.

But sometimes, apparently, it’s difficult to find the right words. And so of course, there’s a website to help us with that. It’s simply called “40 Thank You Phrases,” and it has such creative options as:

I am all gratitude, or,
I will forever be beholden to you, and:
Thanks a Ton.

They get slightly more creative as you work your way down the list.

Words are powerless to express my gratitude.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Consider yourself heartily thanked.

The list includes some unexpected gems such as:

Please accept my vehement protestations of gratitude.

And for those of us who come from California, the list actually includes this familiar phrase:

It was so awesome of you—thanks. (All that’s missing is the Dude at the end of the sentence.)

But of course, sometimes, we simply forget how important it is to say thank you, and the results can be fairly severe.

The Huffington Post shared the story of a young woman who was invited to a wedding for a couple she didn’t know very well. She decided to get a little creative with the gift, and so she filled a picnic basket with all kinds of fancy condiments and delicacies and specialty candies.

The bride was not impressed. She sent her guest a message that read: “I'm not sure if this is the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding, people give money in envelopes now. I spent $200 (the bride went on) covering you and your date’s meals, and I got some Fluffy Whip and Sour Patch Kids in return. Consider this a heads-up for the future.”

The bride went on to demand a receipt for the items in the gift basket.

I know, right? I cringe every time I read that message. That poor groom. Sometimes it’s a comfort to know that no matter how badly you behave, nothing you do could ever be as bad or as rude as something another person has already done. She probably should have just said thanks.

Thanksgiving is a day set aside to say thank you—a day to be grateful to God for life and the blessings we enjoy. But more it’s more likely that we think about the other important things: the food—the friends and family—the football games to watch.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday. We Americans grow up learning about that first Thanksgiving—our entire set of traditions and the industry around the holiday, all stem from the story we’ve inherited that describes that very first meal.

But did you know that the only eyewitness account of that first celebration of Thanksgiving is just 115 words long? That’s right. Just a little over a hundred words, and look what we’ve done with it.

Our text this morning is even shorter than the description of that first Thanksgiving—just 92 words, but it is packed with an amazing and life-changing message. In our passage this morning, in this brief text from the Gospel according to St Matthew, we find a roadmap to a meaningful and fulfilling life—a path to true and lasting greatness.

In our story from Matthew today, Jesus is being tested by some Pharisees. These biblical scholars followed Jesus around and listened to his teachings—then they put their heads together and tried to come up with questions that would somehow back Jesus into a theological corner.

They ask him: Which is the greatest commandment in the Law? And Jesus answers:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We’re right to remember the first part of what Jesus says in this passage—to love God and love your neighbor is such an important thing for us to know—it is, in so many ways, the essential ingredient to a full and happy life. We’re right to remember those two rules for living, but I’m struck by the last thing Jesus says here, too.

“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Really? Think about that for a moment.

The Law helped shape the behavior of God’s people. It was where the followers of God learned their ethics, and the boundaries of what they should and should not do.

The Prophets corrected God’s people went they went astray—when their worship was hollow, and when they forgot to be just and fair in the ways they did business. When God needed to discipline his people, he spoke through the prophets.

Now Jesus comes along and says simply, Love God and love your neighbor. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

And so the core of the Christian message—the one that everything else hangs on—is this:

Love God, and love your neighbor.

Here’s the bottom line: If you can make the small leap to see following God’s commandments as a way of being grateful to God, then there is no better expression of gratitude—no better way to say thank you—than the one we see in our text today:

Love God, and love your neighbor. Every other law and every other prophet—the sum total of everything we know about living the life of faith—everything hangs on these two commandments.

You may know that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in this cathedral 50 years ago. In one of his speeches Dr. King said this:

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, or the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”


Maybe that's what's missing in places like Ferguson this week.
Maybe both sides have forgotten what's really important.

A heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love.

That’s what the life of faith is really all about. Because let’s be honest here: any trained monkey can follow a list of rules. The life of faith is different. True greatness is different. God calls us to a “soul generated by love,” for him and for our neighbors.

But maybe you’re having a hard time loving God right now.
Maybe the thought of loving God never occurred to you before.

That’s OK. God isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready, and in the meantime there is so much for us to do. But where do we start?

Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn of the New York Times have just published a book called A Path Appears. In so many ways this book is a thoughtful, hopeful, and very specific answer to the question: How do I love my neighbor?

They tell some great stories.

Like the kid who was told by his third grade teacher that he would never amount to anything. A trio of family friends started mentoring him, and after college and a career as a journalist, Lester Brown is an evening news anchor in Boston. Oh, and the mentoring charity he started will serve 30,000 kids this year.

Or the group in Africa that provides chlorine dispensers to families so they can drink clean water. The units cost $1.98 per year, and they reduce one of the major contributors to childhood deaths by 40 percent. That’s 2 dollars a year.

Or the high school students in Southern California who were so moved to see how kids around the world were prevented from learning, that they raised $200,000 for a partner school in Haiti. High school kids.

This book is a treasure trove of opportunities to help other people, and it’s a feast for those of you who base everything on a good answer to the Return on Investment question. (You know who you are.) Here’s one just for you:

A medical doctor applied his knowledge of infectious diseases to the way gang violence spreads in urban communities. The US Justice Department estimates that the doctor’s program reduced gang shootings by as much as 28%, and here’s the kicker: for every dollar spent on this program, almost 16 dollars are saved in medical costs and legal fees. That’s in addition, of course, to fewer young people being shot.

I’ve never recommended a book in a setting like this, but that changes today. If you are at all curious about what you and your family can do to make this world a better and more livable place, read A Path Appears, and commit to trying just one single suggestion you find there. Fair warning, though: Doing good—loving your neighbor—it’s a little like potato chips. You can’t do it just once.

We’ve already heard from Dr. King today. Listen to the way he once challenged his congregation. He said:
 
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, "What are you doing for others?"

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast today, take a moment to think about what you can do for someone else—talk with your family and friends about one thing you can do or share with another person to make their life safer or gentler or just better. It’s not about feeling bad. It’s about setting yourself up to feel better than you’ve ever felt before.

If Dr. King is right and life’s most persistent and urgent question really is ‘What are you doing for others?' If that’s the question, then let me invite you to take a stab at one of the answers today.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen, if we spend just a fraction of our day thinking about how we might help another person?

The resources and talents represented in this room today could change the world.

As we continue our celebration of this wonderful Thanksgiving Day, think back on our text. The best way we can be thankful today is to love God, and to love our neighbors.  Everything hangs on those two commandments.

And so may that be true in your home and in mine, today and every day.

Amen. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Monday, October 20, 2014

All In (Acts 8:26-40)

(This message in one in a series called "Acts of the Spirit," and was given at the American International Church in London on 19 October 2014)

One of the things I’m noticing is that a fresh reading of Acts is changing how I see what the church is meant to be. Over these last few weeks we’ve been looking at Acts and following three separate themes:

· The miraculous origins of the church.
· The meaning and experience of God’s presence in the world.
· The call on us as the church in the 21st century.

Luke is telling the story here—it begins in his gospel and continues in the book of Acts. So it’s no surprise that the first thing he shows Jesus doing is talking about the Kingdom of God. Just to review: The Kingdom is not a place or a realm, with limits or boundaries. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is the experience of God’s reign—God’s values and ethics and authority over all things and all places and all people. Jesus comes back from the dead and talks about the Kingdom for 40 straight days—40 days of teaching the disciples and the early believers about that Kingdom of God.

As we come to our text this morning, the church is growing by the thousands each week. The first persecution is beginning to take shape, and Stephen has been martyred under the watchful eye of a Pharisee named Saul. Stay tuned: he’s going to be important very soon.
 
Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. 31 "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to  come up and sit with him.

32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

So where are we in this text? The early church is under persecution. Stephen has been murdered. A Pharisee named Saul is chasing the leaders of the church all over the region

Philip, one of the men chosen to manage the distribution of food, is on the run. He’s traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road that passes by the city of Hebron, and the graves of Abraham and Sarah. He meets a eunuch. Eunuchs were men whose sexual parts were removed so they could be trusted to guard harems and run government offices. This guy was a treasury official in Ethiopia—he was a powerful man who was trusted to oversee the treasury of the queen. But there’s more for us to know here.

In the OT eunuchs are listed as permanently unclean and restricted from the Temple. Deut. 23:1 says: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Eunuchs were not permitted to the community of faith. Now we know there were all kinds of restrictions on people who were temporarily unclean for a whole range of reasons: touching various animals or bodily fluids, menstrual cycles, and a range of other natural conditions. All of these could be restored. People who had made themselves unclean somehow could ritually cleanse themselves and be back in the Temple the next day. Eunuchs were different. They were permanently, irrevocably barred from worshipping God in the assembly of the faithful.

One writer described it this way: “The law strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the temple. Their transgression of gender binaries and inability to fit into proper categories made them profane. They did not fit in the tent.”

But notice that the eunuch is on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem, where in all likelihood he was turned away and prevented from worshiping. When Philip finds him he’s reading a scroll of Isaiah 53. Think about how hard it must have been for him to get his hands on that scroll. There was no Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s down the street—there were no Kindles with Bibles loaded into them. This man had spent a small fortune on a hand-copied scroll of the book of Isaiah, and he read it as a way to help him follow God.

Philip greets the man and hears him reading out loud from Isaiah. Riding in his chariot. Out in the desert. Still feeling rejected after his visit to Jerusalem. Reading out loud from the Scriptures. Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the man is a little exasperated, maybe from just being turned away at the Temple: “How can I understand it unless someone explains it to me?”

Turns out the eunuch is reading a passage we read every Advent season, from the heart of Isaiah 53, where the suffering Messiah is promised to us. How perfect is that? How perfect is it that his question is about who this prophet might be? The Ethiopian is watching and waiting for Advent, and Philip gets to tell him that it’s already here.

Philip takes the question and hits it out of the park, and this Ethiopian gender outsider becomes the very first non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith. They see a little pond or oasis or whatever kind of water you find on a desert road, and this Ethiopian government official says: Is there any good reason why I can’t be baptized?

Think about that question. There are a lot of things Philip could have said at this moment. He could have quoted that Deuteronomy passage and left him there. He could have said that his sexual identity meant that even if he believed, he could never be a part of the church. Of course that’s not what happened. Philip is a product of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Philip is a new creation. Philip listened to the risen Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God for 40 straight days, and in this story it’s clear that he understood what it meant.

In one of those unexplainable moments, Philip is taken out of the story. What’s funny is that the Ethiopian guy doesn’t even notice. All of his prayer and study and longing to understand God has led him to this encounter with someone who had the answers. He rides back to Africa singing songs.

This is a great story about being ready to share the faith. About being sensitive to the questions and searching of people around us. But here’s another thing in this story that we should remember:

We should never ignore the significance of the fact that the first Gentile convert in the Bible was a black sexual outcast.

This is Palestine in the first century, under the control of the Roman Empire. There were no diversity programs or sensitivities then. And yet the first recorded Gentile to accept the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was a black sexual outcast.

When you think about the miracles of the New Testament, never forget this one. Never forget how Philip the apostle lived the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he ran into an Ethiopian eunuch.

What do we make of this? It’s crucial to notice here that after Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion. Jews from outside the Holy Land; Gentiles from anywhere and everywhere; even those whose gender identities and lifestyles were outside the mainstream.

After Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion.

So what the heck happened? What happened to that inclusive trajectory? What happened to the church being a place that was always trying to outdo itself in welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the ones no one else would accept?

The truth is that it’s not long before the church became so deeply connected to the culture, that it came to reflect the culture’s biases and taboos and hatreds. There are all kinds of examples.

Women in leadership in the 1st century were edged out as the church gave in to the patriarchy of the surrounding culture.

The sharing and communal living of the early church is obliterated by individualism and the rise of private property and unrestricted capitalism.

Closer to home in American history: Slaveowners in the American South could celebrate passages that seemed to condone slavery as a perpetual norm—as something that would always be OK, while at the very same time their slaves could be reading the same Bible and longing for release from bondage to the Promised Land.

Maybe Ann Lamott puts it best when she says: “You know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.”

But that’s not the way it was supposed to be. That’s not the way Christian culture was meant to speak in a prophetic voice to whatever host culture it finds itself in.

The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

If we’re going to get this one wrong, then it should be on the side of being too generous—too open—too loving, and not the other way around. That’s what Luke is showing us in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. That’s what this church can be when we allow the reign of God to cover this place.

What can we take away from this text this morning? Three crucial things to remember.

First, God is already working in the hearts of people all around us, even on the margins. Maybe especially on the margins. That Ethiopian was searching for God on his own, desperately waiting for someone to share the Good News with him. He didn’t get any help from the religious establishment of the day. People all around us are searching for God on the own. Our job is to enter into those conversations with our own stories.

Second, the gift of the Holy Spirit trumps everything—even the limits God himself placed on the life of faith in the Old Testament. This is the hardest one for us. My own denomination is tearing itself apart because it’s forgotten who it was called to be—not a keeper of rules, but a demonstration of grace.

And finally, because of that, we’re called to remember that everybody is welcome here. We’re called to be agents of that open, flexible, grace-filled love that Philip showed the Ethiopian. No matter where they’re from, or who or how they love. If they’re willing to seek the God of the Bible through the ministry of Jesus Christ, then we should be looking for the nearest puddle to baptize them in.

Acts is getting interesting, isn’t it?

Just remember this: The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

May that be true in this place, and in every place that claims the name of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012: Whatever is True

(On Thanksgiving Day, the American community in London gathered in St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate this special holiday. It was my honor to give the message for the service--the text of the sermon is below.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It is a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the biggest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our collective stomachs growling.

And of course there’s football. Not the elegant, non-stop version they play here, but the heavily padded, hard-helmeted, brutal, stop-start version they play in the States. It’s a beautiful thing. Sitting around with your friends and family, watching other people pound each other in front of massive crowds.

But as much as football is a part of this special day, Thanksgiving is a lot more like baseball than football. Remember what the philosopher said… And by philosopher of course I’m talking about the American comedian, George Carlin. Remember what he said about the difference between football and baseball:

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz; sometimes he has to use a shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball, though, the object is just to go home.”

I know a lot of us are away from home today. Thinking about our families is a big part of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I read this past week about a family that wanted to do something special for Thanksgiving. Here’s how the story goes:

“The Taylors were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower. They had included Congressmen, successful entrepreneurs, famous sports people and television stars. They decided to research and write a family history, something for their children and grandchildren. They found a specialist genealogist and writer to help them. Only one problem arose - how to handle Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor who was executed in the electric chair of the state prison. The writer said she could handle the story tactfully. When the book appeared the section about Jefferson read:

“Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, he was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock.”

Now I got that story off the internet, and I have no idea if it’s really true.

Hardly a day goes by without someone sending me some story or claim in an email, or tweet, or a Facebook message, and I have to wonder if it’s really true.

We’ve all heard about how Bill Gates wants to send us some money or a new computer; we’ve heard that Walt Disney is actually frozen somewhere, hoping to be thawed back to life; We’ve been warned about the dangers of drinking Coca-Cola and eating Pop Rocks candies; some people have tried to recharge their iPods by plugging them into an onion (don’t raise your hands if you tried that); yesterday I saw that Marilyn Monroe’s recipe for cooking a turkey was going around; and we’ve all heard how signing on to Facebook will be the end of privacy as we know it. That last one might actually be true… For the most part, though, all of these are myths being spread around the world wide web.

Who can we trust when we hear strange stories on the internet?
What source can we rely on to keep us from taking these claims at face value?
Where do we turn to find out if any of these things are true?

The answer, of course, is Snopes.com. Snopes.com is a website that researches the stories that circulate on the internet, and either confirms or debunks their details. It has become a regular part of my day to check the Snopes site when something crosses my screen that doesn’t look quite right.

In our text today, the Apostle Paul, writing to his favorite church, was acting like the Snopes site—he was trying to cut through the different messages that were being spread around the first century church. Paul was reminding the early Christians to keep their eyes focused on the truth that inspired their faith in the first place. He was reminding them that their hearts and minds needed protection—that they needed to be safeguarded from the messages going viral in that time and place.

He said: “Rejoice in the Lord always; Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

He follows that with this charge: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

“Whatever is true…” Keep your minds focused on things that are true.

Wouldn’t that be nice? In a political climate that has become less about ideas and more about discrediting people, wouldn’t it be nice if we could spend more of our time focusing on what’s true and just and pure?

Now the dictionary gives us a range of definitions for true.

To be true is to be accurate: getting the facts and details just right.
To be true is to be honest: being trustworthy and faithful in what we say.

Maybe for us it’s summed up best by being near to the center of the target—Elvis Costello can help with this one: “My aim is true,” he told us. To be true is to be steadfast and loyal; to be consistent and just.

“Whatever is true”, Paul says. Think on these things. Put them into practice.

Maybe for us today it’s most important to remember that truth isn’t just something we find when we look hard enough. Truth is also a discipline that we have to learn and practice and protect.

For Christians this means trusting that the work God accomplished through Jesus Christ is enough for all of us—for the whole world—that it has the power to restore our lives and this earth to the way they were meant to be. That’s the story of the Christian gospel, and it’s a great and wonderful story.

But whatever your faith tradition might be, the practice of knowing and telling the truth is essential for healthy, peaceful, honest living. Remember how Paul started our passage today:

“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds...”

Bringing our lives before God with thanksgiving in our hearts can be a source of peace. Being thankful is one of the ways we keep our lives centered—it can keep us from being too anxious—it can give us the peace that we crave.

In the old television show, The X-Files, there was often a poster in the background that said “The Truth is Out There.” But for us we know that sometimes the truth out there can be harsh and threatening. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson we learned in this last presidential campaign cycle.

After this past year of sniping and slandering and destroying—after this year of conflict over how governments should govern and how economies should work—after this season of disunity and bitterness—after all of that, what if we paused to be thankful for the freedoms we share, for the opportunities we have to change the world and make it a better place for the people at the bottom of the wealth chain?

Now that would be honorable and just and pure—it would be pleasing and commendable and it would be worthy of praise and celebration. Mostly, though, it would be true. It would acknowledge the truth that there is desperate need in the world, and that the combined resources and brainpower present in this very room, on this very day, could help to provide a solution.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to be reminded that our feasts today are only a part of today’s story. Our plenty tells only a part of what’s true about the world today. And if we’re to be the sort of people who experience that peace of God that surpasses understanding, then our celebrations and meals have to tell the whole truth.

Let me invite you, whatever your Thanksgiving holiday looks like, let me invite you to take a moment and talk about this around your table. Tell the truth today.

Not to feel guilty, but to sense the possibilities for solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.

Not to cast blame, but to join together in unity, and to refuse to let another year go by without learning more about how the other two-thirds of the world lives.

Not to be drowned in grief, but to be immersed in the hope that God has and shares for his world and his people.

Let your feast today, the turkey and stuffing, the bread and wine—let your feast today inspire you and your family to work for a day when everyone simply has enough.

Because that’s what it means to tell the truth. And that’s what it means to be truly thankful.

My son and I are learning the prayer of St Francis of Assisi—we say it together each morning on our way to school. The words of this prayer acknowledge the problems of the world, but they also ask for God’s help in being a part of the solution—they ask for the strength to live and share a different truth, one filled with justice and peace for all people.

Listen to these words, and make them your own prayer today.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understoodas to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and may God bless you today, and every day.    Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Closer Than You Think

(This is one in a series of messages on the Gospel According to Mark.)

Mark 1:14-20

(This message was preceded by the choir singing “Libera Me” from Faure’s Requiem.)

I have three pieces of classical music on my iPod, alongside my less-lofty music: Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, and Faure’s Requiem. I don’t know if that reveals an obsession with death or not, but the music is beautiful.

The words here are from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, which goes back to the 13th century when it used to be called the Black Mass. In the changes after Vatican II there was a significant shift in the funeral services used by the Catholic Church. The emphasis on sorrow and grief was replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The anthem we just heard said this:

“Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death on that dreadful day when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when thou shalt come to judge the world through fire. I quake with fear and I tremble, awaiting the day of account and the wrath to come.”

But the service ends with this prayer:

“May Angels lead you into paradise; may the Martyrs receive you at your coming
and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May a choir of Angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Let’s pray for a moment.

We continue our series on the Gospel of Mark today. From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we move forward. Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take everyone’s sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders. That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end. Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation. Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

Today our text follows right after Jesus’ own baptism. It’s a great scene where Jesus comes out of the Jordan River and the heavens open and the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus like a dove. God’s voice comes from the heavens and says: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Not a bad start to his ministry.

In true Mark style, our text immediately follows the baptism of Jesus. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.


Mark’s story of Jesus gets exciting right from the start. Last week Mark led off with “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the son of God,” and immediately introduced us to the wild man we know as John the Baptist. Jesus own baptism and his temptations in the desert are taken care of in a mere four verses, and by the time we get to our text John is already in prison.

The silencing of John the Baptist brings Jesus into the full-on start to his ministry. “After John was put in prison,” Marks tells us, “Jesus went into Galilee and preached the gospel of God.”

The next section captures the essence of the message Jesus preached during his earthly ministry.

“The time has come,” Jesus said. This is a reference to Jewish expectation. The prophets had communicated God’s promise of a Messiah for centuries, but in the 1st century that had been reduced to a hope for a military leader who would drive out the Romans and who would purge Jerusalem of people who didn’t believe as they did—the faith as practiced had become self-serving. It had forgotten, as Israel had done so often, that being God’s chosen brought a responsibility with it: to communicate and share God’s blessing with all the nations. The prayers of Jesus’ day sounded a little like we all did as kids, sitting on Santa’s lap and reciting our Christmas list.

“The Kingdom of God is near.” I’ll confess here that I miss the old way of saying that: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s within reach. It’s getting closer all the time. The momentum toward the fulfillment of God’s promises is closer than you think. It’s worth reminding ourselves here of what Jesus means when he refers to the “Kingdom.”

We tend to think of kingdoms as places with boundaries and limits—places where you’re either in or out. But in the language of the New Testament we should see “kingdom” as God’ reign—the ongoing demonstration of his sovereignty over all people and all places—God’s power over all things, even death. When Jesus refers to the kingdom being near, this is what he’s talking about.

“Repent and believe the gospel.” This is the call of Jesus to strip away your self-serving expectation, and to believe that God has come to bring peace and justice and shalom to the world he loves.

That’s just the first two verses of our text, by the way. Remember that last week I said that parts of Mark’s gospel read like the executive summary of the Jesus story.

The next section shows Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. It’s fair to assume that they had already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, so it doesn’t have to be as abrupt as it looks on the page. But still the call was no less dramatic. Jesus said “Follow me,” and that was clearly a call to leave everything behind and surrender their lives and plans and even their values, and to follow the King.

Tim Keller, in King’s Cross, said that the difference between the Christian faith and other religions is this: Most other faiths require a series of behaviors in order to meet the divine—to gain ultimate consciousness—to earn the highest prize. What they often amount to is advice.

The difference between following Jesus and other religions is that while they give you a path to follow, Christ gives us good news. Keller has a great way of saying this:

“The gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a king. Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done—but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news.”

That helps us understand the way Jesus looked out at some men who were in the middle of their workday—it helps us understand how he could simply say “Follow me,” and have them drop what they were doing to follow him.

It’s also where Christ’s call translates for us today, here in this place, as we seek to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus. Keller adds this:

“Come, follow me, Jesus is saying.
Follow me because I’m the King you’ve been looking for.
Follow me because I have authority over everything,
yet I humbled myself for you.
Because I died on the cross for you
when you didn’t have the right beliefs or the right behavior.
Because I brought you news and not advice.
Because I’m your true love, your true life—follow me.”

Following Christ requires a surrender on our part. Not a surrender of responsibility or action, and not a surrender of vision or creativity, but a surrender of the idea that all of this begins and ends with us. A surrender of our secret belief that we’re in charge—that we’re the king of our own worlds. The call to faith in Jesus Christ is a call to surrender our values for his—our lives for his.

As we move through the Gospel of Mark over these next months, the idea of Jesus as King will be balanced by a reminder to us that if he’s the King, then we’re not. If he’s the King, then the call on our lives is to yield to him—to worship and follow him—and to serve the world that he loves, in his name.

It’s in that surrender that our preoccupation with sorrow and grief is replaced by a stance of hope and joy, based on trust in the saving work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Only one hymn will do when we’re talking about surrendering to God. Let’s stand and sing together: “I Surrender All.”

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Better News Than We Thought

(This message is the first in a series on the Gospel of Mark.)

Mark 1:1-8

This past week we watched a documentary about a series of protests against Apartheid back in the 70s. The protests focused on the South African national rugby team, and their tours of other nations. Anti-Apartheid protesters disrupted a series of matches, drawing attention to the injustices toward blacks in South Africa. There were interviews of participants on both sides. Some of those who were against the protests were convincing, but time has proven that they were mistaken—time has proven that they missed the point about what was really important.

Thirty years later they turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Apartheid was wrong—it was an example of a massive injustice inflicted by the strong against the weak—it was wrong, and getting rid of it without a full-scale war has to be seen as one of the great political victories of the last century. The final moments of the film showed the celebration among both blacks and whites, when the first integrated South African rugby team won the World Cup. It was so moving.

The Gospel According to Mark uses a similar strategy. It was the first of the four gospels to be written and circulated, and part of the point was a call to all of us not to be on the wrong side of history—not to miss the point of who this Jesus person was and what he meant and means for everyone and everything in this world. Mark’s story of Jesus is an expression of the central message of the Christian faith. It talks about three main things:

Who the Messiah is,
what the Messiah did,
what we’re supposed to do about it.

From the very beginning Mark teaches the connection between the Jesus story and the story of Israel. For this part we need to have in all of our minds the words God said to Abraham when he called him in Genesis 12 and promised that he would be the father of a great and chosen nation. God said:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Let me make this part very clear as we get started.

Jesus came as the promised Messiah or King to complete the story of Israel that started with that conversation between God and Abraham. Then, as the King, he went to the Cross to take creation's sin and brokenness onto his own shoulders.

That’s now he establishes his Kingdom on earth, and now he calls every person and every place to follow him and live by a new set of values and priorities and loves.

That’s the answer to the three big questions Mark is answering in his account of Jesus life and work:

Who is the Messiah?
What did the Messiah do?
What are we supposed to do about it?

We find the complete gospel of Jesus Christ in the answers to those questions.

Anything less ignores the continuity that drives the story of the Bible from beginning to end.
Anything else doesn’t do justice to the mission of God among his people and in his creation.
Anything that calls itself “the gospel” that doesn’t include this whole story, is catastrophically incomplete.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our text this morning is the first few verses of Mark’s gospel, Mark 1:1-8. If you’re able, please stand for the reading of God’s word today.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever spent much time talking with someone who can’t get to the point? Yeah, that’s never going to be your problem with Mark. This book gets to so many points, so quickly, that you can be out of breath after just a few chapters. Mark uses some variation of the word “immediately” 47 times in 16 chapters. This is the gospel for people with short attentions spans.

But the main point for us in this text is the definition of this “gospel” Mark is talking about. The church gets this part wrong far too often.

On the liberal side, Jesus gets reduced to being a great moral example. He loved the poor so we do too. He was tolerant, so we should be too. This side of things doesn’t take Jesus’ own claims seriously—it doesn’t see him as the Messiah, as the fulfillment of Israel’s story, or the one who came to redeem the world as its rightful servant king.

The evangelical side doesn’t do much better. A preacher posted this on Twitter the other day:

“The gospel in four words: ‘Christ in my place.’”

That’s not nearly enough. When personal salvation becomes the main part of the story, it misrepresents who Jesus was and makes it too easy to ignore the other main parts of the story. It allows us, by comparison, to ignore the poor or injustice or the environment, or to turn loving our neighbors and enemies into an abstraction that doesn’t really change anything about the way we live and love and work and spend.

It leads us into the lie that the Kingdom of God is some future place, instead of the reign of God at work in all times and in all places and in all people. “Christ in my place” is such a severely edited version of the gospel that it ends up perverting the gospel message.

Mark has a different definition, one that begins where we should begin, with God’s promises in the Old Testament. The Old Testament references from Isaiah and Malachi serve as a flashback right at the start of the book, to help us understand both the present and future.

So what is this gospel Mark is talking about? Bob Guelich, who was my New Testament professor in seminary, summed it up this way:

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

See how that ties everything together?

This is something that Scot McKnight and other writers are taking up with a lot more urgency these days. They see the huge impact of the true gospel being reduced to individual fire insurance—a ticket to get punched so that we can avoid eternal punishment. McKnight writes about the way of thinking that limits the gospel to “Justification by faith that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.”

In his book, The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight recalls a conversation with a pastor who believed this was the sum total of the gospel. He asked him: “So did Jesus preach the gospel?” The guy thought for a moment, and then said no, because Jesus didn’t preach about the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost. I’m still stunned by the gall of someone actually thinking that Jesus himself couldn’t have preached the gospel of, well, Jesus, because he couldn’t talk about the parts of his ministry that hadn’t happened just yet.

Do you see how this is a stunted view of the gospel? In our own text this morning Mark says that the beginning of the gospel is underway before Jesus even starts his ministry. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” Mark says.

And that beginning he’s talking about is John the Baptist announcing that the King is coming. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. When the good news for the whole world is reduced to the personal, it’s no longer the gospel and, quite frankly, it’s not very good news, either.

This is where it’s important to remember that the promised Messiah was a promised King. It was a King that would glorify and extend the reign of God himself over all things and all places. Anything less than that turns the message into something completely different from what it was intended to be.

In this election year everyone seems to be taking sides on what kind of politics Jesus would approve of. A Stanford psychologist measured the relationship between Christian beliefs and political views. The conclusion of the study was that most liberals understand that Jesus might have views that are more conservative than their own, but also at the same time that most conservatives agree that Jesus would hold more liberal views than theirs. (click here for the article).

The point here isn’t to suggest that we vote one way or the other. It’s to recognize this simple truth:

If you’re picking and choosing political views that you know Jesus wouldn’t agree with, he’s probably not the King and Lord of your life just yet.

The task for us as we make our way through Mark’s gospel, and as we try to make the gospel real in our own lives—all of that means we have to remember a few things:

Christ came to establish his kingship, not start a club.
He came to transform culture, not to be subject to it.
He came to complete the story of redemption that God started in the Garden.
He came to write the climax of the Bible’s story, of Israel’s story, the story of God’s blessing for all nations.
He came to heal what was wounded, restore what was broken, and to offer forgiveness for everything that has gone so painfully wrong in each one of our lives.
He came to do all that, and also to offer each one of us the chance to live with him forever.

“The gospel is the message that God acted in and through Jesus Messiah, God’s anointed one, to effect God’s promise of shalom, salvation and God’s reign.”

That’s the Gospel that Mark is about to show us. It’s a much bigger story, with more meaning for more people than we usually give it credit for. It is, at the same time, the history and the future of God’s people and his creation. It’s better news than we ever could have thought or even imagined. It tells us who the Messiah is, what the Messiah did, and what we’re called to do about it.

The gospel is the history of God’s active love for his people and this world. The invitation in Mark’s gospel is to be on the right side of that history—to be caught up in God’s redemptive plan, and to serve his world in his name.

That invitation is meant to begin with a meal together. The Lord’s Table is where we come to be nourished and strengthened for the journey of faith. It’s where we come in our weakness and brokenness and fear, and leave strong and restored and courageous. Come to the Table. Let’s pray together.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Through a Glass Manly

Over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, she’s invited her manly readers to respond to John Piper’s latest comments on masculinity and faith, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Check this out before you read on: http://rachelheldevans.com/john-piper-masculine-christianity

These days some Christian men are talking a lot about being, well, Christian men, and a lot of it comes off as a little strange. Mark Driscoll thinks we should be reimagining Christ as a sort of 1st-century badass, shoving his way through Roman-occupied Galilee and giving Pharisees the finger on the way to the Cross. He likes to think that our inheritance from Jesus Eastwood is a life of no-tears faith, rockin’ worship and getting laid. John Piper takes a slightly less aggressive approach. He has long warned that women in leadership roles is an indication of a deep-seated problem with the church, and lately he’s come to the conclusion that God himself gave Christianity a masculine feel, whatever that means, and that women should accept and enjoy that.

So like I said, there’s a fair amount of manliness popping up in churches these days.

This is nothing all that new in American evangelicalism. Dwight Moody said similar things back in the late 1800s, but for far more sensible reasons. The massive shift toward industrialization and urbanization in post-Civil War America kept working men away from home and church for six or seven days out of every week. The work they did was often dirty, dangerous and dehumanizing, and their time off was spent sleeping or drinking. As a result the Christian faith became associated with the women who were its most visible practitioners, and Moody believed that if men were ever going hear a credible expression of the Christian message, preachers were going to have to butch it up a little. He didn’t say anything against women, though. He simply wanted men to feel more welcome—as men—in the Christian culture of the day. We can credit Moody with a part of our contemporary emphasis on reaching out to the marginalized people around us (the working men of Moody’s time), and making them welcome in our midst.

That’s substantially different both in motivation and tone than what Mark Driscoll and John Piper are selling these days. I honestly can’t say that I know what has them in such a state.

What I do know is this. The first two Christian leaders to take me seriously, questions and all, and to model the love of Jesus to me, were women. I grew up in Southern California, not too far from Fuller Seminary, and Kathleen and Mary were pastors-in-training, gaining experience by serving as interns in local churches. What I learned later was that they were also trailblazers, women who were clearly gifted and called by God into ministry, but who had to fight (gently and patiently, as it turned out) for the chance to serve the church—as women—as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Alongside the passages of Scripture that have been used to fence the pulpit for men only, I also see these two women who helped to shape me into the Christian and pastor I have become.

That’s a pretty significant set of data for my own understanding of how men and women and faith all go together. Here’s another.

When Dustin Hoffman was given the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, he took the statuette, held it up to his eyes, and said: “Just as I thought. This has no genitalia.” I’ve always wanted to say that about God, too. Yes, he reveals himself as Father, and we need to believe that and wrestle with it and continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer as it was given to us. But we don’t have to overconclude from God as Father that he’s limited in any way to one expression of gender, or that somehow, as it seems to follow for Piper and Driscoll, mothers and daughters don’t measure up. We also shouldn’t overwork the traditional understanding of differences between men and women in such a way that limits either from being all that God intends. The kindest, most gently loving person I ever met was a man. Some of the toughest people I know today are women. So what? Those are personal descriptions, not prescriptions, and we forget that simple difference at great cost.

One of my favorite reminders from the Apostle Paul’s writings is that we see now as “through a glass darkly.” I’ve always understood that to mean that here and now, in our fallen and broken state, we aren’t always (or ever) going to grasp the full depth and measure of what the Gospel means in our lives and families and communities. It’s always made me a little suspicious of people who were a little too sure about things. Did they have a clearer glass than I did? The caution here is that we should be careful about letting our politics, or our traditions, or our manhood, obscure our vision any more than it already is. The glass is dark enough already. Let’s not muck it up even more.

So what do I make of all this? What do I—as a man who is also a Christian, a husband, a father and a pastor—what do I teach my son about men and women and Jesus and faith? On the one hand I’m thankful that in my denominational tradition he won’t see the issue in the same conflicted way that I did at his age. But with this resurgence of gender role navel-gazing, especially in its more testosterone-fueled variant, it seems more important than ever to make sure we give our son as clear a sense as possible of our equal value and freedom in Christ.

I choose to do that in stories. I’ll tell him about the way Kathleen took me under her wing when I was the most awkward 10th grader in history. I’ll tell him about how it felt when Mary sang with me and challenged me in college. I’ll tell him that life is best when we are willing to grow and learn from anyone who is willing to pour their lives into ours. I’ll tell him that right now, at 11 years old, I’m praying for someone to come into his life and help make Christ real to him, no matter what they’re packing under the hood (that was for Driscoll). I’ll tell him, well, you get the idea.

Maybe there are masculine qualities to the stories we see in the Bible, but every one of those has to pass through the crucible of Paul’s radical vision for Christian community in Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The point of Paul’s vision for the Christian church was for the barriers between us to be crushed and wiped away, not to be shored up and nurtured. That’s the church I want for my son. That’s the kind of Christianity I think we’re meant to enjoy. It’s an aspirational faith, one where we’re not limited by the prejudices and limits we inherit, but one that always moves, slowly at times, toward the joyfully inclusive celebration of the King’s banquet.