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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Christmas Eve 2011

In Small Packages

I saw an ad for a laptop the other day—it was a picture from the side to show how thin and light it was. Seriously—this thing was less than an inch thick, and yet it was more powerful than any computer I’ve ever had.

It seems like we’re always trying to make things smaller. Everyone gets a laugh out of seeing Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street, walking on the beach and chatting on a cell phone that looks about the size of a shoebox. I think they even called that model “The Brick” because of its size and weight. Now my Blackberry can create the illusion that I’m always in my office, and it fits in my shirt pocket.

For those of us who grew up with stereo systems that filled pieces of living room furniture, the iPod is still a little amazing.

If you’re old enough to remember Apollo 11 and the mission to get a couple of guys walking on the moon, it may surprise you to know that you have far more computing power in your laptop than they did at Mission Control, and that computer took up an entire wing of the building. And that’s not all. You have about 100x more memory in your smartphone than they did on the spaceship itself.

Cameras, computers, mobile phones and even cars—so many things are smaller and more efficient than they were in their original form.

Even Twitter is getting into the smaller-is-better game. Each message, or tweet, on Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Everything from messages about what people are having for dinner, to the real-time report of the raid on Osama bin Laden—all of that happens on Twitter at the tiny rate of 140 characters per message.

The main parts of the Christmas story that we’ve heard tonight can be told through Twitter messages:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child & give birth to a son, & you are to give him the name Jesus.” That comes in at a perfect 140 characters.

And how does Mary respond?

“My soul magnifies the lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble estate of his servant” Room to spare at 128 characters.

Meanwhile, the angels are surprising some shepherds in the fields. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you.” Just under the wire at 139.

The promise to Mary is pretty economical: “This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a mange” Just 89.

And the kicker, the praise-filled song the angels sing as the heavens are opened above some terrified shepherds: “Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace to all people on whom his favor rests.” That heavenly message only takes 86 characters.

There are a couple of newborns in our circle of friends these days. Our own son is 11 now, and one of the things you forget after a while is just how small a newborn baby really is.

In the Christmas story we talk about the angels and Mary and Joseph and shepherds. We even talk about barn animals that aren’t actually in the story. But we don’t often think about just how small Jesus was on that first night. He was probably 7 pounds or so—about 3 kilos—just half a stone.

But that little baby was sent—he was born and raised and shaped and called—he was sent to be the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people, the one who would reconcile God and all of his creation, once and for all. Such a huge gift in such a small package.

More than 500 feet underground, at the border between Switzerland and France, there is a massive circular tunnel—17 miles around—that is used to conduct scientific experiments.

Now I’m going to try to explain this without sounding like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.”

The Large Hadron Collider is a laboratory where particle beams of protons and other materials are smashed together to try and recreate the conditions that brought about the beginnings of the universe. They’re looking for a tiny particle, smaller than an atom, called a Higgs boson. Physicists believe that the Higgs boson particle is the thing that transforms energy into mass. In other words, it will help explain how solid things first appeared—and keep appearing—in the universe.

That tiny thing is often called The God Particle, because it has the potential to explain how everything got here—how this all got started—and maybe even where we’re going. All of these scientists and engineers—10,000 of them from more than 100 countries—all of these people looking for the meaning of the universe in something so small.

That’s why we’re here tonight. The Word of God, the meaning of the universe, the Messiah and savior of everyone and everything, came in the form of a small child, a newborn baby, and nothing was ever the same again.

Christmas Eve is as good a time as any to remember who this Christ-child was and is. In one of our confessions we say this:

In life and death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The love of God,
And the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

We trust in Jesus Christ,
Fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
forgiving sinners,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.

All of that began with the birth of this one baby: Jesus the Messiah.

If you’re searching or wondering about this Jesus we’ve been going on about, don’t let another Christmas go by without looking for the answers to your questions—without praying and asking to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That gift is always there for you—always waiting to be opened, even when we come with more questions than answers. If you’re curious, and you don’t have a Bible to read, let me know and I’ll get you one that you can keep. Don’t let another Christmas go by without finding out for yourself who this Jesus is.

For tonight, though, as we prepare to have meals and give gifts and wear bad sweaters and all the other things that go into this day. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, never forget what God did—and what he promises to do—in the birth of that one baby boy, on that one holy night. Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:46-55

At the end of the Cold War someone found a book from the 18th century buried in some papers in East Berlin. The book was about 100 pages long, and it was filled with symbols and words that no one could translate. The book was in a code so unbreakable that it had lasted for almost 300 years without being cracked. That is, until a few months ago.

The book is known as the Copiale Cipher, and it was finally translated by three scientists—one from the States and two from Sweden. As it turns out it was the manual for a secret society in Germany. It described their rituals and practices, and also their fascination with ophthalmology and eye surgery. Strange club.

The story of how they broke the code is interesting, and it reminds us of how hard it can be sometimes to understand what God is trying to teach us in the Scriptures. That’s not the issue in today’s text.

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

I’ve said before here that Mary is one of my favorite people in the Bible. She’s a young single pregnant teenager in a culture that wasn’t all that forgiving. But she’s been told by an angel that she’s carrying God’s child, and she responds with such faith and courage that it’s hard not to admire her.

Let’s remember just how courageous Mary is being at this point.

God calls all kinds of people to do his work, and most of them respond with excuses or try to get out of it. Abraham says he’s too old, and so does Sarah. Moses suggests to God that he made a mistake, and recommends that God try his brother. Jonah flat out runs away. God calls him to a task and he turns around and does a 100-yard dash…that is, until a fish gets him to come back.

Jesus—even Jesus, when he is in the garden of Gethsemane—even Jesus asks if God can come up with some kind of a Plan B.

Mary, though, somehow gets it and is willing to hear God’s call no matter what. Remember what she says to the angel just a few verses before our text:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Mary’s full response comes in the form of an outburst of praise. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. What we have after that is a song where Mary shows how deeply and completely she has absorbed God’s plan, even if she might have been terrified.

Mary didn’t misunderstand.
Mary didn’t try to haggle with God.
Mary didn’t have to decode God’s call in order to know what to do.
Mary understood God’s call on her life, and she responded by singing his praises.

We learn some things about God in Mary’s song:

First, God calls people to come to him in faith: “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Second, we see God’s sovereignty: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Third, God nourishes us for the calling he has given us: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” That’s not just a slam on the rich. God is calling out anyone who thinks they don’t need him—that they can take care of themselves apart from God. Mary describes a great feast that is open to anyone who admits their need for God.

And finally, in Mary’s song we see the fulfillment of God’s promises and the foundation for the promises to come: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” If God could be trusted then, then we can trust him now.

I like that there is an image of a meal here, which shouldn’t really be a surprise if you know me. I like the picture of a feast for anyone willing to trust God more than they trust their own power or money. This meal is where we’re filled with “good things,” with God’s mercy and forgiveness, with his salvation and Holy Spirit.

When the group of scholars cracked that 18th-century cipher, they were quick to say that it was their ingenuity and not fancy technology that got the job done. “This is something humans did, not something computers did,” they said.

What we celebrate during this season isn’t anything humans did. We celebrate God reaching down to all of us with the gift of his son—the gift of a way back to living the lives we were meant to live all along.

When we come to the Table we remember something crucial and life-changing that we were not able to do on our own. The sacrifice of Jesus is what we’re called to remember as we take the bread and the cup. It’s a sacrifice we can’t make for ourselves.

Mary helps us understand that. As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to say a prayer of thanks that a teen-aged girl in the first century was wise enough and brave enough to hear God’s call and say: “May it be to me as you have said.”

My prayer is that we can all show that kind of faith this Advent season. Let’s pray.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Message 2011

(This message was given in St Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day 2011.)

Ephesians 2:14-22

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving. It is truly an amazing thing to be able to worship together in this beautiful cathedral. We’re honored to be here.

According to the website About.com, these are the Top 5 Family Thanksgiving Traditions. This is really the only day when I get to use material like this, so bear with me.

First, there is the turkey dinner, though there are regional variations on how that’s prepared. There’s the traditional roasting; in New England you can have a salt-encrusted turkey; in Hawaii apparently they rub coffee on the bird before roasting—that may be a way to try to prevent falling asleep immediately after the meal. And somewhere in the south, God bless ‘em, they’re deep-frying turkeys today.

Second, of course, is football. Now for our English friends—or really anyone not from the States—we’re not talking about soccer here. We’re talking about heavily padded, fully helmeted, oversized American football. It’s a part of the holiday to sit and watch football before and after the big turkey dinner. I have three NFL games recorded at my house, just so we can have them on in the background today.

Third are the parades, though that really means the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And fourth is fighting over the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey. Apparently the tradition of breaking the wishbone and making a wish dates back to the ancient Etruscans in the 4th century BC. Aren’t you glad you came today?

Finally, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somehow pausing to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. Even in hard times, it’s important to be thankful for the gifts of life and family and friends, even if we’re separated by distance or time. We’re here today to join together and give thanks, and it’s a blessing to be here.

Unlike a lot of other American holidays, Thanksgiving is celebrated at home. In the States people get away from home whenever a long weekend comes along. Martin Luther King Jr weekend in January means a ski trip, and if the snow holds out so does Presidents’ weekend in February. Memorial Day is the start of summer, so we go to the beach or the lake. The 4th of July is for picnics in the park. For Labor Day weekend we’ll try to squeeze in one more outdoorsy vacation, and on it goes.

But Thanksgiving is about being home, or at least in someone’s home, and about sharing our homes with those who are far away from theirs. It’s about opening our doors and welcoming family and friends and even strangers to a time of food and football and fellowship.

I remember the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We’d been married for just a few weeks, and even though I knew the people around the table, I was still a little nervous. More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is steeped in very specific traditions. How you prepare the turkey, what kind of pies to serve, what do you do with the sweet potatoes, and then there’s the cranberry sauce.

Seriously. Let me just pause here for a moment. I‘ve seen people get in heated arguments about whether or not canned cranberry sauce is acceptable for a Thanksgiving table. Even now I can feel the tension in the room. Personally I love a good slice of canned cranberry sauce, complete with those little dents and ridges from the inside of the can.

But what made that first Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family so special, was how they included me and welcomed me to their table, and how they tried very hard to add a few of my own traditions into that first celebration together. It was wonderful to be included that way. I didn’t feel like a stranger or visitor at all—I felt like part of the family from the very first moment.

That’s what I love about the passage we heard from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians a few minutes ago. It’s a beautiful statement of the unity we’re meant to have as people of faith. Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

And then Paul gets to the point. “So then,” he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”

“You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Rena Garcia was my friend in elementary school. This past summer we caught up at our 30-year high school reunion, and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we shared a very special Thanksgiving memory from our childhood days. We grew up in Southern California, a part of the state that was filled with people from somewhere else. It was good preparation for living in London—we were surrounded by people and languages from all over the world. Half of Rena’s family was from Spain, and the other half from Mexico.

I remember that on the day before Thanksgiving each year, Rena came to school dressed like a Pilgrim—a carefully made black and white dress that looked exactly like the pictures of pilgrims we were reading about in our lessons at school. The teachers loved it so much that they passed Rena around like an artifact—she went from room to room where the teachers would show her off or use her as a visual aid for their explanation of that first Thanksgiving. I can still picture her—her brown skin and beautiful smile all dressed up like a 17th-century English dissenter, the people we grew up calling Pilgrims.

I think I may have felt sorry for Rena. I found out later that her mother had made the dress, and then sent her daughter off to the dangerous jungle we knew as primary school. I felt sorry for her, but one of the great things I learned later was that she wasn’t nearly as embarrassed about wearing the costume as we thought.

Because in Rena’s family there was a point to wearing that costume to school. Rena’s mother dressed her that way to make it clear to everyone that she was an American —that she belonged—that she was part of the family now. For her it was a gentle way of asking to be accepted—of wanting to fit into her country. At our reunion a handful of us shared our memory of the dress with Rena, and she couldn’t wait to go back and tell her mom that we’d all remembered it.

Thanksgiving is a time of gathering and reconnecting and accepting and remembering—it’s a holiday that’s perfect for looking a loved one in the eye and telling them how thankful you are that they’re a part of your life—how thankful you are that you get to be friends or family together.

Thanksgiving is also a time to welcome new friends. I’ve been hearing stories this past week of families who always set extra places at the table on Thanksgiving, just in case someone didn’t have a place to go. Some people invite students over, and others include a member of the military at their family gatherings. Homeless missions across the US today are serving turkey and all the trimmings to men and women and children who don’t have anywhere else to go.

All of this is a way to say what Paul said to his friends in Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

Paul’s letter was to a city that needed to hear a message of reconciliation and hope. The people of Ephesus lived under the threat of persecution; there were social and religious conflicts; and even within the fragile early church there was a danger of losing touch with the message that brought them together in the first place.

It’s a relevant message for today, no matter what your own faith tradition might be. For Christians this is a call to unity—unity of belief and unity of purpose made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. But whatever you believe today, for all of us there is an invitation in this passage to come together and share in a common purpose and mission.

“You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

As we look back on it, Thanksgiving didn’t really get off to a very easy start at all. Not long after the first Thanksgiving feast, devout pilgrims changed everything and celebrated the day of Thanksgiving with fasting and prayer. That doesn’t sound nearly as fun as a big joyful meal together.

Later, when Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday in October of 1863, America was in the middle of the Civil War. The very first Thanksgiving was celebrated just months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in the war.

Thanksgiving—this special day of giving thanks for the blessings in our lives—Thanksgiving has survived some very difficult and painful times.

The Occupy protesters outside today remind us that we’re in hard times again. But they also remind us that we have neighbors, people God calls us to love, who have experiences and fears and concerns that might be very different from ours.

And maybe one of the blessings of a protest here, today, just outside these doors—maybe the blessing for us on this Thanksgiving day is that the people who are most vulnerable and who have been affected most deeply by our wounded economy—those men and women are no longer strangers. They’re with us this morning, here in this place.

One way we can celebrate this day of thanks—along with the food and football and fellowship—one way we can demonstrate our gratitude is to listen to the voices of those who struggle. We listen, even when those voices provoke or irritate us—we listen, because we’re not meant to be strangers anymore.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, even in difficult times. Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times this week, told the story of a teen-aged boy who is a gifted pianist. He broke his right arm recently, but instead of giving up he went out and bought a copy of Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand and learned to play a new way.

Maybe that’s good advice for all of us this Thanksgiving. Clearly something is broken. Clearly we can’t go on the same way we’ve been going. But maybe, if we look hard enough, we can find other ways to live and grow and serve and make something new and beautiful together. Maybe, if we can turn the heat down a little and look for the light, we can find a way ahead that is more just, and more fair for everyone.

Maybe that makes all of us pilgrims, in a way. We search for ways to heal our hurts and those of our neighbors—we move around looking for better ways to raise our families and engage the world around us. Maybe we’re all pilgrims now, looking for God’s blessings as we work and study and play.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, but today, on this Thanksgiving Day, we pilgrims can be drawn to the promise in Paul’s words. “You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless you, today and every day. Amen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

John Charles Harmon (1963-2011)




John D'Elia, Shane Sindle, Earl Bryant and John Harmon

I’m back in California this week, seeing family, reconnecting with people, and saying goodbye to a friend I’ve known my whole life. There were four of us boys, among some other great friends who grew up at First Presbyterian Church in Burbank, who stayed connected over the last 40 years or so. The four of us played baseball together, went to church camps and conferences together, and over the years supported, participated in and disrupted a generation of youth ministry at the church where we were raised. Some of the stories you’ve heard, and others aren’t really fit to print here. But through all of it, Shane Sindle, Earl Bryant, John Harmon and I developed friendships that shaped us as kids and which continue to influence us in our adult years. My childhood and adolescence are unrecognizable without John, Shane and Earl in the background (probably laughing about something), and it occurs to me that virtually everything I learned about Jesus as a kid I learned with those guys at my side.

The four of us had and have lots of other friends, but there was something special about our relationship that became even more so over the years. Once we got into our 40s we saw a new value or preciousness to the fact that we’d been together so long. It was clear we would do anything for each other, and even better, we began to go out of our way to make sure the others knew it. In the movie “Stand By Me” the narrator says: “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant.” In my friendships with John, Shane and Earl it was more like friends who entered into each other’s lives and then sat down and stayed for a long meal.

John died last week and the rest of us are trying to made some sort of sense of it. There isn’t any big answer to John’s loss, of course, but it’s important to wrestle with the questions. John was a complicated guy. Funny, gentle, charming, and almost childlike on the one hand, while on the other he struggled with depression and grief, and could never really escape the temptation to numb both of those with an assortment of drugs. Now the rest of us are thinking back to signals missed and clues overlooked, but the answer is, very honestly, that John wasn’t the type to reach out easily for himself. Just once in the 40+ years that I knew him did he call me and ask for help. He’d gotten himself in to a pattern of using that had destroyed his finances, his relationship, and was taking its toll on his body. My wife and I drove up to see him in Santa Barbara 13 years ago or so. We didn’t solve much, but it was a reminder to both John and myself that we’d do anything we could to help the other.

We’re left with this moment to begin to say goodbye. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back at my house in London with my family or in my office, thinking about how the four of us were going to get together next summer. I want there to still be one more chance for the four of us to hang out and talk about our lives. Maybe that’s what is giving my grief such an especially intense pain: I can’t imagine a world that John isn’t in. I can’t imagine a world where we won’t have another chance to tell the same old stories and comment on how those stories made us the guys we became.

The service is tomorrow and we’ll gather in the coming days to talk and cry and make plans for getting together in the future. I hope the sadness goes away and I expect it will, mostly, but for Earl and Shane and myself I think there will always be an enormous space among us, a space where John belongs. I believe in the promise of an afterlife, even if I can’t quite wrap my head around what that means. I believe I’ll see John again, whole and strong and filling his days with worship instead of the drugs that ruined him. But even with that hope it breaks my heart that I won’t see him again here, in this beautiful, broken, joy-filled, painful life.

So we say goodbye to John, in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” as the Christian tradition says, though there will be varying degrees of sureness and certainty, I think. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends this week. I just wish they were all here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"And the Second is Like It"


Matthew 22:34-40

It’s been a little nostalgic this past week to think about some old neighbors of mine. We had a Japanese-American family on one side, and their grandfather shared with me about his experiences as an internee in Manzanar during WWII. Down the street there were neighbors we didn’t know very well, but we learned pretty quickly that the wife had a hard time parking her big car in their narrow driveway. She would get home at about 5:30 every day, and honk for her husband to come out and park the car for her. For years whenever we heard a car horn, our family joke was “that lady can’t park.”

On the other side of our house was a family that had a bible study during the 70s that had a big influence on my mom’s life. Across the street there was a Puerto Rican family from New York. The boy who lived there was a little younger than me and tagged along with whatever I was doing at the time. They took me to the beach once when I was about 10, and I remember afterward the dad taking us out on the front lawn where he kneeled down and rinsed the sand from our feet. To this day he’s the only person I can remember ever washing my feet besides myself or my parents.

We had some interesting neighbors, but I never really thought about what it might mean to love those people. I didn’t choose them. I didn’t know them all that well. I never really thought about loving them.

Turns out Jesus did.

And not just the neighbors that live in places near us at any given time. Jesus calls us to love neighbors, and by neighbors he really means pretty much anyone who isn’t you. Sometimes he means people who you can’t even stand. Occasionally he means people who would rather kill you than be loved by you.

In multiple places and in different ways, Jesus Christ calls us to love the people around us—the other people he made and loves and wants to reconcile to himself. Yeah, if you thought a series on loving your neighbors was going to be sweet and easy, better think again.

As we move past the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this seems like the perfect time to talk about loving our neighbors—maybe even about loving our enemies. Jesus talks about both a lot, especially compared to some of the other issues that churches get wrapped up in. He talks about it a lot, and if we’re honest we’ll admit that we don’t talk about it much at all. So, in memory of those who were lost on September 11th, and also in the 10 years since then, we’re going to take this on and see what we learn.

Talking about loving God and our neighbors is really an extended conversation about what it means to be a mature Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. The church has spent 2000 years mostly trying to define what it means to be a Christian in terms of statements of things we believe. But Jesus had a different perspective. He saw faith as being thoroughly linked with action—not to earn God’s love, but as evidence that we’ve experienced God’s love.

Now I’m not ready to give up the idea that what we believe is crucial to being a Christian. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. Doctrine matters—if only to put the brakes on our temptation to re-create God in our own image. Doctrine matters, but it’s not the point.

Jesus doesn’t define the life of faith by what we believe as much as he defines it by who and how well we love. Jesus doesn’t say “they’ll know you’re my followers by your sound doctrine.” No, Jesus says: “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Uh-oh.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It was a regular part of Jewish prayer life to begin and end each day with the prayer known as Shema Yisrael. We know it like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

This was the prayer that every faithful Jew said in the morning and again at night. It was the foundation for everything else. In our text someone approaches Jesus to trip him up, to catch him in some willful disobedience to the Jewish tradition. “What’s the most important commandment?” the guys asked.

Jesus took the main point of the Shema prayer and joined it with another line from Leviticus 19:18. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So Jesus’ response was to take a familiar answer and add to it something that hadn’t been connected to it before. Sure, every faithful Jew knew that they were supposed to love God, but it was easy to minimize that obscure bit about loving your neighbor. Jesus not only joined them together, but he added that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So the essence of being a follower of Jesus is to love God with all we’ve got—our heart and soul and mind—and to love and care for our neighbor as much as we love and care for ourselves.

How important is all of this? How central is this idea to what it means to be a Christian person? Let’s let Jesus take that one. He said: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Everything depends on this. When Jesus says “all the Law and the Prophets” he means the entire foundation of faith in the one, true God. It’s such an enormous claim—such an over-the-top radical statement—it’s so huge that I can’t believe Matthew 22:40 hasn’t ended up on t-shirts and keychains and anywhere else it can be printed. I can’t believe we haven’t seen on a poster in the end zone of an American football game.

Everything depends on this.

Think about that for a moment. Everything the Bible teaches on sexuality or personal morality. Everything the Bible teaches on peacemaking or social justice. Everything we know or will ever know about theology and doctrine.

Everything depends on this.

Everything hangs on the one-two punch of “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We talk a lot about loving and serving God here. We worship and fellowship together, we try to grown our faith through Bible study and reading. You saw today that we’re trying to move out in faith in this community and around the world to be God’s messengers, and there’s more to that report during our Coffee Hour today.

But loving our neighbor in the way that God defines love—and the way God defines neighbor—doing that part is a little more of a challenge. We’re going to focus on how these go together to form us into the people God wants us to be.

Over the next few months I want to invite you to read along in a very good book called The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, by Mark Labberton. Stephanie and I read it earlier this year, and we think it would be a helpful guide for thinking some of this through in the context of the rest of our lives. We have copies available downstairs if you’re interested.

Loving our neighbors, the author says, is about aligning our hearts to God’s so that we see the world and the people in it with his eyes, his heart. This is directly connected to the issue of justice in the world. Listen to what he writes.

“Our hearts don’t consciously will injustice. Nor do they deliberately withhold compassion. Nor is it that tales of injustice fail to grab us and concern us. Yet our hearts are weak and confused. Our hearts are easily overwhelmed and self-protective. They’re prone to be absorbed mostly with the immediacy of our own lives. Our hearts have the capacity to seek justice, but they’re usually not calibrated to do so—at least not beyond concern for our inner circle. In a world of such hearts, virulent injustice thrives. Systemic injustice, the absence of the rule of law, and the suffering of so many innocents at the hands of oppressors—that injustice relies on the complicity and distraction of our ordinary hearts.”

In order to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are our enemies, our hearts have to be calibrated—they have to be retuned so that we see the world and the people in it with God’s eyes—with God’s heart. It’s not easy—it seems overwhelming and challenging and impossible. And yet here’s the thing:

Everything depends on it.

Over these next few months we’re going to wrestle with what it means to love our neighbors. We’re going to do it with this Jesus Creed in mind, and starting next week, one way or another, we’ll hear it or say it together every Sunday until Advent.

“Hear O people of London, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
With all your mind and with all your strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11th: "Everyone Has a Story"

Acts 1:1-11

Everyone has a story.

When I was growing up my parents used to talk about where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. I remember where I was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and crashed. It was the way my grandparents remembered Pearl Harbor or VE-Day. All of those tragic, historic moments become markers that stay with us—they become a part of the way we see the world around us. They shape how we think about everything that happens after that moment.

Everyone has a story.

This past week, as we’ve come up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, people have been sharing their stories of where they were and what they were doing—of people they knew who had been lost or who had suffered losses.

One of my closest friends from childhood is a flight attendant for American Airlines. She has a terrifying story to tell.

Some of my colleagues who are pastors in New York or New Jersey or Connecticut remember the tragic funerals that filled their calendars and broke the hearts of their congregations.

For months after the attacks, The New York Times ran a series of biographical sketches called “Portraits of Grief,” telling a little of the stories of almost 2000 of the victims who died that day—from bankers to busboys, from soldiers to security guards, from police officers to transit workers to those 343 firefighters who ran into the Towers and never came back. The stories gave faces and names to the numbers we heard on the news. It was essential reading.

Over the past few weeks the Los Angeles Times has been collecting short articles that highlight the impact of that day on people’s memories now.

I was working for Fuller Seminary in California at the time of the attacks, had been in New York on a fund raising trip about a week and a half before. Most of us on the west coast were sleeping when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center—it was 545am in California. Many of us who woke up to the news at 6 saw the second plane crash a few minutes later. My son was not quite a year and a half old that day. I wondered what kind of world he was going to grow up in.

Everyone has a story.

Acts 1:1-8

1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.”


Our text from the first chapter of Acts is a story that comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry and before the birth of the church—for those of you who follow these things, this passage falls just before the Ascension and Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. The disciples are in the presence of the risen Christ, still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the last month or so. Everything was going so well, then it all went catastrophically wrong, and then Jesus emerged from the tomb and you get the idea that the disciples were just trying to keep up.

Jesus is trying to prepare them for what was coming next, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about. Did you catch that question they asked while Jesus was telling them what to expect? Jesus has lived with them and taught them and demonstrated his love by serving people and healing diseases and casting out demons and dying on the cross—he did all of that to show that the values of his Kingdom are different from those of the world. And after all that they ask him: “So are you going to restore Israel to power now already?”

You have to think that Jesus groans here, wishing they could understand what he was telling them, but he presses on and says: “Once the Holy Spirit comes to empower you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.”

In so many words Jesus told them: You have a new story to tell, and I want you to tell it everywhere.

What was the story?

The first part of that story is that God came in the first place, that he took on human form. At Christmas when we sing about “Emmanuel,” we’re celebrating the mystery of “God with us,” of God coming to reconcile us to himself.

The second part of our story is the message that Jesus came to share. More than anything else he talked about the Kingdom of God. In his sermons and parables and his confrontations with religious and political power, Jesus described a world with values that went against the grain—of generosity and forgiveness, of grace and love for enemies.

But most importantly our story tells of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross—of his taking on our sin and punishment so that we could come freely into the presence of God.

When Jesus told his disciples to “be my witnesses,” this is the story he wanted them to tell.

Being a witness in Jewish tradition was a very important thing. Only with two witnesses could a case be presented in court. Being an honest witness was so important that it becomes one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against anyone.”

To be a witness was to testify, along with others, to the love and grace and sacrifice and redemption available through Jesus Christ.

The essence of the gospel is this: Through the life and ministry of Jesus we have seen what the world can look like when it operates according to the values of the Kingdom of God. Through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah we receive the good news that all people in all places can be reconciled to God.

So God’s already done the heavy-lifting. God has already done the work. The call on each one of our lives needs to be crystal clear: It isn’t to save the world. It’s to tell the story of the one who already has.

If that’s the story we’re meant to tell, then what does that mean for us today, as we gather to remember a horrible day and the impact it’s had on our lives?

First, it means that our lives aren’t trapped or limited by our memories of what happened 10 years ago. The gospel story is there to keep our fear and our anger in check—we have to keep from lashing out in revenge against people Christ came to redeem and to reconcile to himself.

Second, that new story means this: In the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God, our story of the September 11th attacks can become a catalyst for more forgiveness, not less. More work in the area of peacemaking, not less. More acts of gospel-sharing grace that tell the story of Jesus Christ in a meaningful, life-changing way.

But most importantly, to be a witness to the story of Jesus Christ is a daring, world-changing act of hope in a world that doesn’t have much of it right now. It’s an act of hope wrapped in the faith that announces to the world that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again to make all things new.

How does all of that happen? That’s what we’re meant to discover together as the family of God, the Body of Christ, this local church. That’s why we’re going to spend the next few months here talking about what it means to love our neighbors, even if our neighbors are our enemies. That’s an act of hope.

We tend to think of hope as something elusive—something we can’t really find on our own. Sometimes we think of hope as something that happens to us beyond our control.

But Christian hope is active—it’s rooted in God’s faithfulness to his promises in the past. Christian hope is a discipline—we practice it daily so that we can get better at it—so that it can be more than simply hoping for a good parking place, or hoping you get into the right school.

One great theologian wrote that Christian “Faith hopes in order to know what it believes.”

To be Christ’s witnesses in this world is to be people of hope, people who hope so that we can know God’s story is true. And so we can go out and be his witnesses with that new story here in London, all around this country, and to the ends of the earth.