Friday, December 28, 2007

Home (and) Movies

So my London friends are always teasing me for recognizing location shots on TV and in movies. Most of you know that I grew up in Burbank, and that a lot of the entertainment industry is based here (I'm there as I write this). So many popular shows, even if they pretend to be based in New York or Chicago or some other such place, are actually taped on stages that are just a long walk from my house. Last summer my son-in-law, who works at Warner Bros., took me on a great tour of the sets for ER, Gilmore Girls, Friends and a bunch of other shows. In that 12 days after Julie and Ian went ahead to LA for Christmas, I watched a handful of movies by myself in London. It was uncanny how many used the streets of Burbank for location shooting. I was watching the psychological thriller, Memento, one day, and one shot passed right by the Winchell's Donut Shop near my home that I used to visit, er, rather frequently.

So why rehash all of this right now?

On the flight to LA on Christmas Day I enjoyed my usual binge of movies--five altogether, with an episode of 30 Rock as a chaser. Ocean's Thirteen was good; Run Fatboy Run was bordering on great; Shoot 'Em Up set a new body count record but was clever anyway; The Darjeeling Limited was strange and wise all at the same time (the whole movie was written to point to one scene near the end where three dysfunctional brothers threw their father's luggage [read: baggage] off a train).

But the kicker was an average English romantic dramedy (there's a dreadful word) called Someone Else. Why reserve special place for an average movie? Because the entire film was shot in my neighborhood in London. Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park, Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill were all clearly visible throughout the movie. The streets of my little corner of London looked beautiful, even on the tiny airplane screen. Every little recognizable thing made me smile.

I suppose we all have things that have identified 'home' for us. Family homes, schools we attended, sports teams we've supported and the like. For me, alongside all of those things, it's always been that my neighborhood was in the movies. How strange and fun all at once, then, to see my new hometown, 5500 miles away from where I grew up, appear on the the screen as the background for a movie. If God is trying to get me to see North London as my home, even for a season, how creative to do it through the movies that I talk about so often.

Christmas in Southern California is great--I'm having a great time with my family and friends and the places I love to see. But I'm also looking forward to getting back to London next week. Who knows, maybe I can get some work as an extra...

Monday, December 24, 2007

News Flash

We had a great Christmas Eve service at the American Church. Lots of new people and more of our church family than I expected. Beautiful music and a great spirit--people hung around and chatted afterward even though there was no coffee hour. Kate (the assistant minister) and I were a little blue through the day, but the service got us both in the Christmas spirit (thanks for the Arsenal kit, KO). The lovely Barlow family had me over for dinner--roast duck with noodles, Brussels sprouts, and a French dessert soaked in brandy. What a treat to be with them! (Thanks for sharing, all of you.)

I'm packing now, and a member of our church is taking me to the airport in the morning (thanks, Jane). Next stop: LAX, baby!

Merry Christmas!

Hopes and Fears

Luke 1:46-55

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,
even as he said to our fathers.”

We continue our Advent Series of looking at the great themes of the Christmas season. We’ve spent time on Love and Peace, and today we’re going to look at Hope.

I suppose it’s sort of lazy to start a sermon with a dictionary definition, but here’s what Webster’s has to say about the word, hope: Hope is desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfilment.

Our text today is a prophecy in the form of a song. Mary sings this as the story of her role in the birth of the Messiah unfolds.

Biblical prophecy is a complicated thing, but for us today we should know that it can have different functions for the reader. Sometimes it’s predictive—it tells of something that’s going to happen in the future. That’s the way we use the word ‘prophecy’ today. Sometimes it speaks to a specific issue in the present, as when the Old Testament prophets talked about injustices in Israel. And at other times it declares the ideal for what the present should be like—these prophecies talk about the world in its perfect state, as God intended for it to be.

Mary’s song has all three of these.

What’s going on in this song of Mary?

‘All generations will call me blessed.’ Church traditions have argued about this for centuries. What does it mean for Mary to be blessed in some special way? Certainly she deserves some exalted status for being the mother of the Messiah, but that doesn’t make her some form of Deity. It’s important, though, to remember Mary’s faithfulness and humility as we celebrate Christmas. It’s an important part of the story.

‘God’s mercy extends from generation to generation.’ This wasn’t just a first century event. The eyewitnesses make it pretty clear that whatever happened in Bethlehem was for all people at all times.

‘Filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.’ This is the ideal for what the world should be like. Hungry people should have enough to eat—that’s part of our call as Christians. You’ve heard me say it before: God doesn’t intend for a single person to starve—there’s enough food for every single person, every child of God. The problem isn’t production, the problem is distribution. Moving to the next phrase, the ‘rich’ aren’t sent away just because they’re rich, but because they’ve wrapped up their hope and security in money and possessions, and they become deaf to the good news of Christmas.

This song is about the meaning of Christmas—what it means to the world for a savior to come. We talk and read and sing so much about Bethlehem, about the baby Jesus, about the trappings of that first Christmas night—whether those details are actually in the Bible story or not. We devote so much time and space in our Christmas services to remembering the details—do we spend enough time thinking about what it all meant?

Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Seminary. He tells the story of being in a mall a few days before Christmas, doing some last-minute shopping, and hearing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ piped in above the noise of the crowds. When it got to the line: ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ it stopped him short.

His reaction was to say: Really? The hopes and fears of all these people are met somehow in the baby Jesus?

I’ve been shopping this year, too. Have you seen the faces of the people you’re shopping with? So many people look miserable.

They really look afraid—afraid that they won’t find the gift they’re looking for—afraid they won’t be able to afford it if they do find it—afraid that this Christmas might be as vaguely disappointing as so many others have been.

The other night Andy McGuffie and I were walking to a restaurant nearby, and we saw a couple dressed up for Christmas—we heard them arguing loudly near a pub down the street. There a lot of profanities involved, which I won’t quote for you today, but at one point the guy turned to his girlfriend and said: ‘How can you call me negative? I’m not negative at all—I’m not!’

Andy and I both wanted to say that, in point of fact, the more times you try to negate something, the more likely it is that someone close to you will assume that you’re negative.

What are we trying to negate—what are we trying to deny this Christmas? How about our hopes and fears?

We deny our fears so that people will think we’re strong and brave and indestructible.

We deny our hopes so that we can’t be wounded—so that no one can disappoint us.

‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight?’ What does that mean?

‘All the years’: We heard Mary sing that God’s mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. The gift of a savior wasn’t just for the fist century—it wasn’t just for the Jews—the offer of that mercy wasn’t limited to anyone or any time. ‘His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.’ This is not an exclusive party we’re celebrating this week. It’s a free offer, an open invitation to a place that will never run out of room, a welcome to a gathering where each one of us can feel at home—freely accepted and loved and known. Not bad, eh?

How does that happen? It happens because our hopes and fears ‘Are met in thee tonight’ The parts of our lives that drain us and harden us and make us fearful and hopeless—all of those parts of our lives are met—they’re encountered and satisfied by the baby Messiah, lying in a manger, coming to be a gift of love and hope and sacrifice for the world.

Remember the dictionary definition of hope? Hope is ‘desire accompanied by expectation of, or belief in, fulfillment.’

Our hope is found in God’s love and sovereignty over his creation, and in how he exercised that love and sovereignty through the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
As we gather in our homes and parties—with friends and family members—this is what we celebrate: Our hopes and fears are met—they’re fulfilled—in the one we have come to know and worship, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas Feast

Today we had our annual staff lunch to celebrate Christmas together. There are six of us who work at the church: Kate O, who oversees the children and youth ministries and helps me with pastoral care, Tony Baldwin who leads the choir and plays the organ, Miranda Macdonald who manages the office, and Monty Strikes who runs Latchcourt Ltd., the room rental business here at the church. We all work together to make this place run, and I'm grateful for their skill and good humor.

So...we thought for a long time about where to go for our special lunch. A few of our favorites were already booked up, and so I went to my local Italian place and proposed an idea.

Gianni and Daniela Palermo have a restaurant near the church called The Fitzrovia, which is the name for our neighborhood. It's a small place--just about 5-6 tables--but it's good food and not expensive. They also do a morning special with a pastry and cappuccino for a pound, which is a steal. Anyway, over the last year I've gotten to know Gianni and Daniela pretty well. She just finished a theology degree at King's College London, and we've had lots of good conversations about faith and church and living in London. The have two kids, named Giovanni and Gina, who also work at the restaurant every once in a while.

I went to Gianni a few weeks ago and asked him for a special favor. I told him that I wanted to bring the staff in to eat, but that we didn't want to order off the menu. I asked him to make a Christmas meal for us, and you wouldn't believe what he did.

Now brace yourself, because this is going to make you very hungry.

It's been cold and clear here in London, so we came in with a bit of a chill and sat down at the table that was reserved for us. First thing out was some garlic bread, almost too hot to hold. They make it on pizza crust, and it tastes just like something my Grandma D'Elia used to make: with olive oil, chopped garlic and oregano on top, crispy from the oven. Next we had little decorative tureens of celery soup, which was delicious. It was perfect for the cold day--the soup was really good.

When that was cleared away they brought a different sort of dish--soft crepe-like pancakes stuffed with ricotta and spinach. The spices were perfect: some sage, some parsley, and a little garlic.

Next up was the main course (I know, I know, this was a LOT of food). Gianni and his daughter brought out bowls of polenta (a traditional Italian corn meal dish), with a veal stew to ladle over it. This stew was amazing: peppers, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and chunks of veal you could cut with the side of a fork. It was delicious--the combination of meat stew and polenta was new to me, but I'm already scheming to have it again. It was one of the best dishes I've ever had.

We were stuffed at this point. We all had a little more than we should have eaten, but no one wanted to let any of it go to waste. We were lamenting how full we were when Gianni brought out the dessert.

Each of us got a large piece of pannetone, smothered in a cream/sugar/rum sauce that was out of this world. We soldiered on, and almost all of us ate the entire dish. We topped it off with espresso, and then sat around feeling contented and a little overfed. It was a great lunch, and a very kind and special gesture from my local Italian friend.

I don't know if he'll check this posting, but I want to say publicly: Thank you, Gianni, for the wonderful Christmas feast. We won't forget what you did for us today!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Of a Peace

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

Hiroo Onuda was a lieutenant in the Japanese army during WWII. In 1944 he was sent on a secret mission to one of the Philippine Islands. His orders were to conduct guerrilla attacks on Allied troops, those orders ended with this command:

‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.’

Onuda took his orders so seriously that after a long period of silence, when he finally emerged from the jungle, he was still prepared to fight. --- The problem was that it was 1972. The war had been over for 27 years. Lt. Onudo had been living in the jungle, preparing to fight and die, in a constant state of war for almost 30 years.

No one had ever told him that the war was over.
No one had ever told him that there was peace.

In our text this morning the angels came to the shepherds in the fields and told them:

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Peace to all people. But if that’s true, then why does the world seem to be completely buried in conflict?

We could spend the rest of the morning talking about all the places where peace doesn’t exist, but that would only tell a part of the story. The peace that the angels promised is more than just the end of war—it was more than just warm fuzzy love for everyone—it was more than just the absence of conflict and strife.

The peace promised by the angels is the shalom peace of the Old Testament, the perfect peace that existed in creation before we got our hands on it and broke God’s peace into a million little pieces.

Shalom has a definition that is as challenging to us as it is beautiful. God’s shalom is one of those words that doesn’t translate well into English, because it means about 20 different things. God’s shalom—God’s peace, is:

-Contentment in relationships with God and each other
-Harmony with neighbor and nature
-Wholeness in all things

When God called Israel to be his people, it was for a purpose. They had a job to do because of their special status. God called his people not to bask in their privileged place as the chosen nation, but to be a blessing to all the nations. That’s quite a job description. They were called to be the presence and image of God to people who hadn’t heard his name yet. They were called to be instruments of his peace in a world full of conflict.

A few weeks ago leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met to try and chart a course toward peaceful coexistence between them and the world. Each leader took the microphone and began by listing the injustices and crimes inflicted on them by the other side. But each of them also acknowledged that the only way forward was to set those grievances aside and move ahead—they proposed a wary sort of forgiveness between their people—they offered to give up their rights to revenge and retribution.

So many of the commentators that evening yawned and rolled their eyes. They said it was just a president trying to create a legacy—they said they’d heard it all before—they said it would never work.

The Christmas season gives me a special opportunity to say things like this: Those are all lame excuses for not being supportive of the peace process, for not being agents of peace whenever and wherever it tries to live and breathe and thrive. It may take 5-10-or maybe 20 more initiatives like this one before a group of leaders and the people who follow them are brave enough to give peace a chance. No matter how many tries it takes, though, we’re called to be supportive of each one.

When Thomas Edison and his team invented the lightbulb, it was the result of years of failed attempts—more than 50 of them—to get a filament to hold current long enough to provide light without breaking, and now that light is still all around us.

It’s not the failed attempts at peace that we remember, it’s those rare moments where we get it right and peace takes hold in the hearts of leaders and followers. When that light takes over from the darkness and changes things forever.

That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

When the angels shared this good news they were giving us our marching orders. They were helping us understand what it means to be a blessing to all the nations. I don’t always dust off my Greek dictionary from seminary—most of the time it just sits on my shelf. But it’s important for us today to remember that the word for ‘angel’ in the Bible is the root of our word, ‘messenger.’ The angels came as messengers from God, and call us to be the same.

If there is anything we’re supposed to do because of Christmas—any challenge to us as we exchange gifts and decorate our houses and prepare meals—if there are any commands for us to follow because Jesus the Messiah came to us, it’s this:

We have to tell people that peace has come.

We have to tell people that the point of this holiday is that God has offered to repair the Shalom we broke, and that that offer has come in the form of the baby Jesus. We have to find the people still in the jungle—even here in London—we have to find the people hiding and preparing for conflict and let them know that the Prince of Peace has come, and that he wants them back. We have to tell people that the one who had the grievance against us, even Christ himself, has given us a remedy that extends as far as the curse is found.

That’s the gift to each one of us this Christmas, and to more still who haven’t heard this good news.

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to all people,
On whom his favor rests.

Go tell someone that good news this Christmas. You never know—this time it might just work.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

An evening to remember...

OK, so it's Thursday afternoon here in London. It's a cold, beautiful day outside--clear skies and in the mid-30s (there's still frost on the ground). I'm sitting in our house, a little bummed out because Julie and Ian just left for California for a Christmas break. I'll be joining them--I fly out on Christmas Day--but for now I'm alone in our house for the next 12 days, and it's not much fun. counter my general state of mopiness I'm going to tell you about the evening out I had with Julie last night. It was pretty darn cool.

First, we went to the Christmas program at Ian's school, which was actually held in the very posh hotel a few blocks away (I saw Gwen Stefani there once...). Ian was great, although we could hardly see him behind the gargantuan girl standing in front of him. After the concert we got home in a hurry to meet our angelic sitter, Niki Barlow.

Why the rush? Because we'd been invited to a Christmas cocktail party at the home of the US ambassador, Robert Tuttle. It was an inconvenient night to go out, with Julie needing to get ready for her flight, but she was a trooper and looked STUNNING in her dress.

Winfield House is the official residence of the ambassador. We'd been there before for an Easter Egg Hunt earlier in the year, but this was the first party we'd been invited to. It was great--here's a picture of the house.

One of the first celebs we saw was David Frost, the British interviewer and generally smart guy. He said hello to me for no apparent reason, which earned him an extra portion of points.

As we moved from room to room I found myself facing a large, friendly-looking clergyman. Whew, I thought, another out-of-place minister who might want to stop for a chat. I introduced myself and we started talking about ministry, about the differences in UK and US churches, and the role of the Anglican Church in this country. I suppose I should have picked up the clue when he mentioned his cathedral, but I let it go and we kept chatting. Julie was having a nice talk with his wife, which I was half-listening to as well. As we wrapped up our chats he gave me his card. "His" cathedral was St. Paul's Cathedral, and he turned out to be the Bishop of London, John Carew Chartres, 3rd ranking leader in the Church of England. When I saw that I mentioned, just in passing, of course, that I had preached a few weeks ago at his cathedral, and that I thought it was very nice. He laughed and we started talking again. It was a pleasure to meet him.

In the main room, just as we came in, we saw our favorite journalist--and one of our favorite women in the world--Christiane Amanpour. She was with her husband, who I actually saw first. He's James Rubin, and he was assistant secretary of state in the Clinton Administration. She was talking to some people when we noticed her, and we decided to make a circuit through the party before coming back, and by the time we did she'd gone. That was one disappointment in a night that was otherwise fantastic.

The real buzz in the room came when Baroness Margaret Thatcher came in. She was a bit swarmed at first, but in a lull Julie and I went up and introduced ourselves. She shook our hands and asked what we were doing in London, and we had brief chat about the American Church. It was a nice capper to a truly amazing evening.

Julie and I have turned a major corner over the past few months. We always felt called here to serve the American Church and the community around us, but we haven't always felt, well, glad about it. That's changing. London is a daunting, thrilling, challenging and dazzling place to live. We still plan to come back to California--don't worry about that--but it is a special blessing from God for us to freely love this place while we're here. One of many Christmas gifts we've received already this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

For the Love of Advent

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Is there a more familiar passage in the Bible? It’s everywhere—on greeting cards and t-shirts and key chains and on big yellow banners at sporting events. We quote this passage a lot, which is great. It sums up so much of what we believe and hope. Some people have said that if you had to reduce the entire Bible down to one verse, this one would be it. They’re not far off. But when we think of this verse we tend to focus on the payoff in the passage more than the rest. If we believe, says the text, we’ll have eternal life in heaven. That’s great—that’s part of the good news of being a Christian in a nutshell. But today, as we look ahead to Christmas next week, I want to spend some time on the first part of the passage, the part that talks about why God did what he did in sending his Son to us. Listen to the words again: ‘For God so loved the world…’ Isn’t that amazing?

Now at the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton here, it’s important to spend a minute on just what the meaning of ‘so’ is. There’s two ways we can hear those words: First, we can just bask in the good news that God loves us so much, that the ‘so’ is about quantity. Nothing wrong with that—who here doesn’t need a reminder of the hugeness of God’s love for us? It’s so easy to forget, and yet it’s the foundation of everything that matters to us. God loves us SO much.

But there’s a second way to understand that sentence. It can also be heard to mean that God loves us just so—that he loves us like this. That’s the way I think of it, especially at Christmastime. ‘For God so loved the world.’ You can also say it this way: Here’s how God loves us—here’s how he does it, how it actually works. God loved the world in this way, he sent us his Son. Merry Christmas.

Now about our passage. John’s gospel is different in style from the other three stories of Jesus in the New Testament, but the point is exactly the same: to present the story of Jesus and invite people to believe in him. This is the ‘good news’ of the Bible, and that’s what gospel means—good news. John’s gospel emphasizes two themes in his telling of Jesus’ story: believing and loving. All through the book John talks about believing and loving as the true marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ—we believe and love because we have been loved by God first. That’s what’s happening in our passage today.

And that’s where we get back to the part of our passage that talks about how God loves us—what he did to show us the extent of that love. This is where people who have been churchified over a long period of time start to talk about the Incarnation. It’s funny, the literal definition of incarnation is ‘to turn something into meat.’ God is a spirit, but for a brief time, completely for our benefit, and purely because he loves us, God took on the form of a human—flesh and bone like us. Now, we throw those words around a lot in church, but how often do we think about what an amazing, generous gift that was. The God of the universe took on all the limitations and boundaries and pain and dangers of being a human being. He took on a body when he didn’t have to. Some writers have called this ‘the great condescension’. It’s not condescension in the way we use the term—God wasn’t being condescending as we say it. It literally means that he descended to be with us—that he came to our level.

God sent his son here so that through his life we could all live the lives he intended for us in the first place. Like a life-giving transplant, God in human form made it possible for us to live, even though it cost him his life.

Ahmed Khatib was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was accidentally shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in the town of Jenin in the West Bank. He would have become just another tragic statistic if it hadn’t been for a decision made by his parents after his death. Ahmed’s father had seen his own brother die waiting for a liver transplant, and so he and his wife decided immediately that their son should be an organ donor. But there was a catch—the only hospitals performing transplant surgeries were Israeli hospitals. Still, the Khatib family decided to allow the doctors to do their work and three Israeli girls had life-saving transplant surgeries, receiving Ahmed’s lungs, his heart and his liver. One parent didn’t find out who the donor was until the surgery was underway. He was stunned. All he could say was that it was a remarkable gift—such a gesture of love. Another parent wanted to invite Ahmed’s parents to a celebration. He said: “I want to thank him and his family. I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter.”

Just as Jesus gave up all of the prerogatives and privileges of being God in order to save us, this Palestinian family gave up everything—their anger at the Israelis, their frustration at how they’ve been treated by everyone in the Middle East, their right to withhold what was theirs from people who were their enemies—they gave up all of those things to offer a gift of life to people they didn’t even know. Whatever you think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, we can’t help but be amazed, and even a little in awe at how this one family, in the middle of a terrible tragedy, made peace with their neighbors, by giving up their son.

That’s what we’re celebrating on Christmas. It’s God making it possible for us to live. It’s God transplanting his son into our lives so that we can be forgiven, so we can be the people he made us to be, so that we can live with him forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

So what do we do? How do we live the Christmas story in a way that honors and reflects what it really means? I said before that there are two themes that drive the gospel of John: believing and loving. Both of those represent the foundation of what our life of faith is supposed to be like.

First, we’re called to Believe: We have to believe, even when it seems impossible, that this Christ-child we celebrate really did bring the good news of forgiveness and salvation. It’s such an amazing story—who would make up something like this? The message of the baby in a manger is that God loves his creation so much that no expense was too great for him to reach out and find us, even when we hide from him. That’s really the basic message of the Christian faith: God made us to be with him, but our sin drives us into hiding. Through Christ we’re offered a way back to him, if we believe.

We also have to Love: this one has two parts.

First, we have to allow ourselves to be loved. This one is so hard. My preaching professor, who my son is named for, used to tell a story in class that helped us understand what it means to be loved by God. Ian’s daughter was given a rag doll when she was 3 or 4 years old, and it became her favorite toy—she couldn’t bear to be away from it for any length of time—she slept with it and traveled with it and played with it. Over the years the doll became worn and dirty—after a while it really looked awful. But what my professor came to understand was that the doll’s value wasn’t based on what its parts were worth, it was based on how much his young daughter loved it. The doll had enormous worth to that little girl, because it was loved. When we can begin to see our value through the eyes of the God who loves us, then we can grasp what happened at the first Christmas.

But it’s not just about receiving love. The call to each of us is to find meaningful ways to show love to others. Think back on our text: the love that God models for us is a kind of love that makes sacrifices—that gives up things even when we’re entitled to them. It’s the sort of love that drives action—to provide comfort, to speak the truth, to meet needs. In our culture that spends so much time talking about the happiness we’re entitled to, this kind of love is truly radical—revolutionary, and life-changing. Later on in this gospel John quotes Jesus again when he says: A new commandment I give you: Love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Just to close. Mo Leverett is a minister to urban youth in New Orleans, and a singer-songwriter too. In one of his songs he says this: “I believe in the love of God, it is an orphan’s wildest dream.” Think about that. If there’s a message of Christmas that we don’t think about enough, it’s that God’s love for us draws us into a new family, a family of people who know they need a savior, one based not on our blood, but on his. I can’t forget the words of that Israeli father, inviting the Palestinian family to join his party, because his daughter’s life had been saved through their sacrifice. “My daughter is their daughter,” he said. When we accept the love of God in our lives we are invited to a new party—a new family rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ—a new way of living our lives.

If you have been in this faith for a while, take this message with you and make it a part of your Christmas celebration. As you drive around looking at lights and banners and nativity scenes, remember that the foundation for Christmas is God’s unmeasurable love for us, love that gave up so much for our benefit. If you’re new here or if you’re not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance today. This life of faith that we talk about here is messy and hard and confusing sometimes, but it’s the life God meant for us to live, full of meaning and service and challenge. Don’t leave today without talking with someone.

But either way, hear Christ’s words for us one last time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”


Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Advent Sermon

Lk. 15:11-32

Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

This is clearly a family with issues. In my training for doing work in planned giving we would hear horror stories about families that had been torn apart by poor estate planning or conflict between heirs. My manual for estate planning is called ‘Love, Money and Control’, which should tell you a little about how things can go. Inheritance issues can tear a family apart.

What going on in this story?

It was normal in the ancient world, just as it is now, for a parent to pass their accumulated wealth on to their children. But usually that happened after the parents had died. The younger son wants his sooner, which was a lot like wishing his father was dead already.

The son takes what the father had gathered and turned it into cash—the most liquid of assets. He blows it in wasteful living. Ever seen the TV show ‘Cribs’? It’s the young person’s version of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’. The waste on that show is conspicuous and offensive—that’s what the younger son did with his money. He wasted it on things that he didn’t need and ended up with nothing. When he runs out of money and times get bad, he works with pigs and envies their food. This would have been so shocking to Jesus’ listeners. We all know that eating pork isn’t exactly Kosher, but it’s even worse to work with pigs. The idea of envying what a pig might eat was too many bridges too far for Jesus’ listeners.

And so the son ‘came to his senses’—he didn’t repent, but coming to our senses is usually one of the steps before we repent. He decides to go home and ask his father if he can be one of his servants—he can’t be the son anymore—he spent that privilege when he left. The servants eat well, so he decides to go back and work for his father. The son works out a speech with three parts: ‘I have sinned’, ‘I’m not worthy’, ‘treat me like a slave’. It’s not exactly ‘I’m sorry’—it’s not a real gesture of repentance. Besides, we’ve already seen that his primary motivation is to get some of that good food the servants get to eat.

When the father sees his son coming home, he breaks two major rules of his culture. First, he doesn’t let his son come all the way back and say he’s sorry—he goes out to meet him, which would have been shocking to the listeners. But even the way he went out to his son would have offended most people back then. Dignified men were not supposed to run—ever. ‘A proud man makes slow steps’ was a common saying back then. A wealthy man in the 1st century also would have been wearing long robes, meaning that in order to run he would have had to hike up his robe and expose his legs. In other words, the father spared nothing—not his position, not his image, not even his dignity—the father spared nothing to prove to his son that he loved him and welcomed him home.

When the father reaches the son he hugs him and kisses him and doesn’t let him give his little self-serving speech. When the son finally does start talking, his father won’t even let him finish—he never gets to the part about becoming one of the servants. Instead the father throws a party and gives him some nice clothes to wear—his best robe.

This story isn’t complete without the reaction of the older brother, the ‘good son’. He’s angry at his father for being generous to the younger son, even after he behaved so badly. He’s really angry that he never got a party of his own, even though he followed all the rules. Most people interpret the older brother as a symbol of the Pharisees—people who followed all the rules and then resented Jesus for spending time with—for having parties with—sinners. In the end the older brother is just as abusive to the father as the younger guy was. The younger brother wanted the estate so he could spend it now, and the older brother wanted it preserved so he could spend it later. Neither of them cared about the father—not about his position, not about his hard work, not about his feelings, not about how much he loved his family. They were both disrespectful, and yet they both received grace.

The real star of this story is the father who loves his two sons no matter what—no matter how little they understand or value that love. It’s the father who steals this show and drives home the point about who God is and how God loves. It’s the father who forgives both of his sons even before they can repent. This really isn’t the parable of the Prodigal Son at all. It’s the parable of the Father Who Loved More Than We Could Ever Imagine.

So what do we learn from this parable?

As we’ve said many times over this past year, between the Sermon on the Mount and the Psalms and now the parables of Jesus. The point of the life of discipleship is never about following the rules and getting your reward. It’s also not about checking to make sure God deals with all of us in the same way. We have to be careful that we aren’t so moralistic about our relationship to God that we lose our sense of imagination about how he might deal with someone else. It’s too easy to list the things we don’t do, and assume that God’s grace is limited to people with the same list. That’s the path to frustration and envy and cynicism—none of which help as we try to grow in our lives of discipleship.

Second, and related to that, this parable reminds us that God’s grace is about his character and not ours. The two sons never even had a chance to say the right thing out loud. The father knew their hearts and loved them how he wanted to love them—rather than how they deserved to be loved. God’s love for us isn’t about us—we receive it, but we don’t earn it. That should be a comfort to all of us—God loves us because that’s who he is.

Finally. Most importantly, as we begin our season of Advent, we have this amazing reminder of a Father in heaven who doesn’t wait for us to figure out a way back to him. That we have a Father in heaven who sees us from a long way off, who catches a glimpse of us turning toward him and is thrilled. That we have a Father in heaven who comes running to us, and when he gets to us shows us love so lavishly that we can’t even get our prepared speeches out of our mouths. As we celebrate the coming of Christ to the world, we have to see it as God, running toward us, throwing away his right to be heavenly and mysterious and remote. Running toward us so that we can know how much he loves us. Running toward us so we can be his children again. That’s the message of Christmas—that’s what we celebrate through gifts and meals and good feelings—that’s why we worship and serve and follow and repent.

When someone asks you what Christmas is all about, or if you’ve come here wondering about that yourself, here’s the answer: Despite all the different ways we’ve managed to create inheritance issues between ourselves and God—While we were still a long way off, the Father saw us and was filled with compassion for us. That’s why the father ran to the son in our parable. That’s why his son runs to us—once in history and every year since as we celebrate the Advent season. While we were still a long way off, God ran to us. That’s why we’re here.

And that’s why we come to the Table. Communion is a symbolic feast—like the real one the father made for his wayward son. We’re all wayward children, and yet we still get invited to the party. We’ve all messed with our inheritance, and yet God gives us something better than we could ever imagine. Anyone and everyone who is on that journey, or even just wants to be on that journey, is welcome to this Table.

Welcome to Advent. Amen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some random pictures...

Thanksgiving was a great day for us. The service at St Paul's was an amazing experience (see the posting below for more on that), and afterwards we had some friends over for dinner.

This is the pulpit at St Paul's--it's a long walk up those steps when it's your turn to preach...

Our table set for the Thanksgiving Day feast. Tom Barlow recorded an NFL game from earlier in the week, and we watched it while we waited to eat. It was a nice touch.

Annette and Will Calderwood. I worked with Annette at the Presbyterian Foundation, and she came with her two boys to see London and celebrate Thanksgiving with us.

Ian and Anne Barlow working up an appetite...

J.L. Calderwood waiting for his dinner...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving Message

As some of you know I was privileged to preach at St Paul's Cathedral today for the American Thanksgiving service. There were more than 2000 people there, and it was an amazing occasion. The text for today was 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. Here's the message with the text first:

6The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9As it is written: "He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."[a] 10Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

My son and I like to watch animal documentaries—before we moved here last year we were hooked on Animal Planet, an American cable channel with all animals all the time. Now we watch them here—usually they’re on BBC2. Someone with a very serious voice narrates the action. The focus is usually on three things: The habitat of the animal, the animal’s natural predators, and mating habits. Now, I think we’ll leave the mating habits out for the moment . . . but today it’s appropriate to think about the way we live—the way our lives are supposed to be—and also what it means to be—and to have— natural predators.

Today we represent the largest gathering anywhere of the natural predators of the noble Thanksgiving turkey. You know how the last few weeks have been: A BBC presenter might follow you as you stalked your prey in Tesco, or Sainsbury’s, or Morisons, or possibly even into the exclusive prime hunting grounds known only as Whole Foods. From Surrey to St Johns Wood, from Hampstead to Kensington, Americans in the London area have been hunting turkeys to prepare for the family feast.

But preparing that turkey isn’t always easy.

In the States the Turkey Hotline is a number you call when you have a question about preparing a turkey for your holiday meal. As you might imagine, they get some interesting calls from time to time. Last year dozens of people called wanting to know if they could cook their birds by wrapping them in aluminum foil and leaving them in their cars.

An auto mechanic called once to see if he could use motor oil to baste the turkey.

In 1993 a call came in that is still famous among turkey experts: a woman called in a panic to ask how she could rescue her Chihuahua, which had climbed into the turkey to eat the stuffing, and was now so plump and so stuck that she couldn’t get him out.

Clearly, being a natural predator isn’t always an easy task. And yet the holiday meal has come to represent the good life for many of us—the life of abundance—the way our lives are supposed to be. Even the symbol of Thanksgiving—the Horn of Plenty—reminds us that what we celebrate on this day are the abundant blessings of God. The message of Thanksgiving, if we think about it, is about being thankful for what we have. In our text this morning the Apostle Paul is proposing a deeper understanding of what it means to be thankful.

Our passage today comes as a part of a letter to the people of Corinth. Corinth had been a wealthy Greek city until it was conquered by Rome. But it was still a major trading center, and was envied for its wealth and economic power. As a port city for the entire region, Corinth was known for its diversity of language, ethnicities, religions and cultures.

In so many ways Corinth was a lot like London, and its people struggled with many of the issues facing us today. Diverse cultures and religions and value systems all crowded into a fairly small area—London can be a rough place to live and thrive. It can be a challenge here to find happiness and contentment, when so much time and energy is spent just hoping to survive. Paul writes his letter to a group of people facing similar issues, and so it has a message for us today.

I like that this text begins with ‘The point is this...’. It’s that part of every good conversation, after the pleasantries and discussion of the weather are over with—it’s that part of every good conversation where we start to say something really important, something we want the listener to hear and understand. Paul gets to this part of his letter to the Corinthians and says: OK, so here’s the point, this is what I want you to know.

Paul wants his readers to know that there is a connection—an unbreakable link—between being thankful and generous and being happy and fulfilled—between being a cheerful giver and the good life. That might sound pretty simple, and yet we all know that it’s not easy or simple at all. Somehow, in spite of all our wealth and freedom and security, we manage to feel poor and trapped and unsafe. Life is hard, but in this passage the Apostle Paul is trying to explain the key to living as we were intended to live— the key to understanding and enjoying and living our lives to the fullest.

This gospel that Paul is talking about, it offers something to everyone—something unique and important to each life it touches. For our purposes today, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an emergency service, a rescue operation, a defense against the natural predators that stalk us all. If the BBC were to present a documentary on the natural predators of humans living in contemporary London, they would have a long list to work with—the hard part might actually be narrowing it down to a representative few: Loneliness might top the list, but it would have strong competition from cynicism, selfishness, lack of faith, alienation, fear and greed. We may never face the danger of being gobbled up when we step out of our flats and houses, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be devoured by any one of the natural predators of comfortable, educated, sophisticated citizens of this wonderful city.

You can trace the point of this text through several key words and phrases that Paul uses: abundance, blessing, generosity, obedience, being a cheerful giver, and Thanksgiving. Recognizing in large and small ways how God loves us and blesses us. Sharing those gifts freely and cheerfully—and learning to be both obedient and thankful in the process.

What we’re offered here is a path to a natural life, to real life—life the way it was meant to be lived. There are a handful of nutshell passages in the Scriptures that give us clear direction on how God wants us to live. Our text today is one of them. In another God asks us simply to love mercy—to love being merciful and caring toward each other.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said this about loving mercy: ‘When we love mercy’, he said, ‘we find a place for the poor, the victimised, the child in distress and those marginalised in all societies. Mercy implies that the strong have a particular obligation to the weak, and that the powerful have a particular responsibility toward the powerless.’

The line that runs between abundance and obedience and cheerful giving and thanksgiving—that line leads directly to showing mercy—living out our obligation to be strong on behalf of the weak—to use our influence on behalf of those who don’t have any standing. In the end, being thankful is as much about what we do with what we’ve been given, as it is about feeling grateful for the things we’ve received. That’s why we chose the International Justice Mission to be the recipient of today’s offering. Remembering the weak and powerless as we celebrate our abundant blessings is precisely the point of today’s message.

In the end, that’s one of the traits that makes us different from animals in the wild—it’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God. In those wildlife programs you rarely see the strong protecting the weak, but that’s exactly what it means for us to live life as God intended for us. True thankfulness is expressed in the way we share what we’ve been given—in the way we give cheerfully to those who lack what we have in abundance. From the animal kingdom we move into a place where we get a glimpse at the Kingdom of God, a place where God reigns and his people live justly and share freely. That may sound like a dreamworld—a place that could never really exist, but wouldn’t it be amazing? Wouldn’t it be wild?

And so just as Paul began this text: Here’s the point: Whoever you think Jesus was and is—a prophet, a fictional character, a cool guy or the Lord and Savior of the Universe—whoever you think Jesus is, the gospel he taught gives us a roadmap for living, a way of relating to each other, a pattern for surviving and thriving in our own natural habitat. On this day, in this great place, surrounded by this history and these wonderful people—On this Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to decide if this way of life is appealing to you—this way of blessings and abundance, of generosity and cheerful giving, of obedience and thankfulness.

This sermon ends with the same words Paul uses to end our text: After the promise of abundance and blessing, the call to generosity and obedience, and the reminder that we share with others and with God because of what God has first done for us through Jesus Christ. After all that Paul says with an exclamation point: Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Say that with me out loud just one time: Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Amen, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37)

"The Good, the Bad and the Neighbor"

As a parent I’m always on the lookout for one of those teachable moments, when you have an opportunity to share a lesson that may be important to the development of your child. The background to this story is that I’ve been reading a lot about bullying in English schools—touch kids pushing around weaker kids. It can be pretty bad sometimes, and I think it’s my job to make sure that Ian isn’t either the victim of it or the perpetrator of it. In particular, and I thought this was strange because it’s not a significant problem in the US, kids with red hair seem to get picked on at school here...a lot.

So a few days ago I was on the bus with Ian, and I saw a young woman with pretty red hair. I pointed her out to Ian and said something positive about her hair. He looked up at me with scolding eyes and said:

“Ahem, Daddy. You’re married.”

I can’t quite describe the intensity of that particular moment of panic.

Did anyone else hear?
Was there anyone from the church on the bus?
Where was Julie?

I decided to store that one under the ‘no good parental deed goes unpunished’ file.

Our text for this morning is in Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[
a]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b]"
28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
29But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
30In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two silver coins[
c] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
36"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
37The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

In CA you see a lot of recreational vehicles or RVs—campers, trailers and the granddaddy of them all, the fifth-wheel. A fifth wheel is so big that it has to be pulled by a full-sized pickup truck, usually with an enormous V-8 engine. Remember V-8s?

People who travel in these trailers have a mindset all their own. There are little communities of huge vehicles up and down California and all across the United States. They pull into a spot with full hookups for water and drainage and electricity—some even have cable television so you don’t have to miss ESPN or HBO or the Cooking Channel when you’re out on the road. My sister and her husband have a trailer that sleeps at least 7 people, with a bathroom and shower, kitchen and storage for bikes and boogie boards and patio furniture.

On the back of a lot of RVs you see a sticker with a friendly looking cartoon character named Good Sam. It’s the logo for a club—the Good Sam Club—which pledges to stop and help stranded fellow RV travelers, rather than just passing them by. It’s a nice club, doing very nice and helpful things, and it’s also a complete misreading of this important parable. We’ve turned the Good Samaritan story into a feel good story about being helpful, and that has taken all the shocking, radical power out of it. What’s really happening in this parable?

It seems as though Jesus was always being tested. Someone who knew the Bible really well would try to trick Jesus into making a mistake—betraying that he didn’t know or didn’t follow the Jewish Law. People tried to test him a lot. He was undefeated, by the way.

In this little exchange Jesus and the Lawyer agree on the OT understanding of what it means to be a good person—to be a good Jew: Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. But then the lawyer asks Jesus the big question: Who is my neighbor? What he was really asking was Who isn’t my neighbor? Who do I not have to care about, not have to love, not have to serve in God’s name.

The whole tone of the question betrays a dysfunctional view of people, as though they could be divided between those whom we care about and those we are absolved of caring about. It also betrays a spectacular misunderstanding of who God is and how he sees his creation. The lawyer wanted to pick and choose who got his attention, but Jesus was about to show him a different way.

And so Jesus tells a story—it’s a popular one. After the man is beaten and left for dead, a Levite and a priest, representatives of the privileged clergy class in the first century, pass by the person in need. But a Samaritan helps the man out.

It’s important here to understand just who the Samaritans were back then. They were people of Jewish origin who had intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors. They used a trimmed down version of the Scriptures, and didn’t follow the entire Jewish Law and food rules. They were considered to be only slightly better than Gentiles, and weren’t even allowed to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or associate with good Jews. They were outcasts. They were hated. They were completely separated from proper Jewish society.

So back to our story. This expert in the Jewish Law approaches Jesus to test him and says, basically: How do I get to heaven? Jesus responds with a question: What does the Bible say? Like any good Jew of the day he cites the Big Passage, Deuteronomy 6:5, Love God and love your neighbor.

But at this point the guy won’t let up—the text has a very interesting statement right here: ‘But he wanted to justify himself.’ Don’t miss that line—it holds the key to the passage. He wanted to justify himself. All through his ministry Jesus has been trying to help people see that only God can justify—that hoping to justify ourselves—to make ourselves clean before God through our own power—is a battle we can’t win.

When the lawyer asks Jesus who is neighbor is, it’s as if he was asking ‘Can you tell me a story about a good Jew?’ And Jesus responds by saying: ‘Not really, but let me tell you about a Good Samaritan.’

It’s almost impossible to describe how offensive this story would have been to Jesus’ audience. I spent part of this week thinking of examples or modern day equivalents, and even they were too offensive to share today. It was as though when Jesus was asked for an example of what a good person was like, he chose the most hated person imaginable as his model.

The twist in the story is that a question designed to draw limits on the love and community we’re supposed to show, produces an answer that calls us to do the opposite.

What does that mean for us?

First, notice that Jesus doesn’t soft pedal anything here—he doesn’t make the Samaritan the victim, so we could feel sorry for him, though even that would have been too shocking for most of Jesus’ listeners. He makes the pariah into the example, he makes the outcast the hero. This is a lesson for us in the judgements we make about other people. We’ve all got a type of person we don’t like, that we don’t think matters, that we assume God doesn’t care about. I won’t run through my list, but if I’m honest with myself I know it’s there. The basic message of this parable is that being a good neighbor doesn’t always have much to do with status—with being in the right club—with being from the right country. By showing us that the marginalized person can be the hero of the story, Jesus prompts us to see everyone in a different way.

Second, it’s important to remember that our neighbour might not just be someone in need—might be our partner in faithful ministry. This is key. The Samaritan wasn’t just the good guy in the story, he was the one who fulfilled the commands God had given to his people—he was the one who was living and acting in a way that God intended for all of us. He wasn’t allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Samaritan lived the faith that the proper people had rejected.

I found some things packed away this weekend that I’d forgotten about. This white band on my wrist is one of them. It represents the One Campaign, an effort across religious and party lines to encourage wealthy nations to devote 1% of their annual budgets in support of AIDS research and poverty relief in Africa. It’s not a Christian organization, in fact, there are a lot of people involved with the One Campaign that life lives we wouldn’t think of as Christian at all. And yet, they’re doing it—they’re doing the work on behalf of the poor that we’re all called to do. Last week Rev Jesse Jackson reminded all of us that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. When someone you disapprove of does something God loves, you’ve had a Good Samaritan moment.

In the end the most important lesson of this parable is that we shouldn’t spend another second on wondering who our neighbor is or isn’t. So much time is wasted deciding who we agree with and who we don’t—who we’ll associate with and who we won’t—who to blame for the world’s problems and who’s in the clear. It’s not about who our neighbors are or aren’t. The call of this parable on each of our lives is to make sure that we live as good neighbors, that we live as people who represent and model the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to those around us, that we serve and give with the same reckless abandon the Samaritan showed in providing care for the wounded man.

This parable is about so much more than just being helpful. It’s about how Jesus Christ helps us break down the walls that divide us. It’s about how the gospel changes our values and calls us to a new way of life.

I’ll still try to help Ian learn to avoid petty stereotypes and racism, once I figure out how to do it without looking like I’m on the prowl for redheads. But the real lesson I want him to learn is that the love we’re called to show as followers of Jesus doesn’t know or care or pay attention to the racial or ethnic or economic or even religious boundaries we’ve created. If we learn anything from the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s this: Our divisions shouldn’t prevent us from being instruments of God’s love and mercy and good news.

If Ian can learn that, then he can grow up to be a good person—a mirror that reflects God’s love to this world. If we can learn it as a church community, then so can we.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Catching Up

The last few weeks have been ridiculously busy, but mostly in a good way. I had to recruit most of the participants in the upcoming Thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral, and then work with one of the priests there to get the order of worship finished and ready for the printer. In the process I met some very interesting people.

One of them is a guy named Terry Tennens, the executive director of the International Justice Mission UK (that's their little banner over to the right). What a great organization and a really good guy leading it. We met because it fell to those of us who are taking part in the Thanksgiving service to choose a charity that will be the recipient of the offering we take that day. Since 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, we looked for an organization that represented that ongoing work. I actually heard of IJM on Facebook, and after some research we chose them to receive not just the offering, but the significant amount of attention that will come from being mentioned in a service attended by 2500+ people. I invited Terry to give the introduction to IJM at the service, and so we'll be working together in the future. If you haven't come across the work of IJM, click the 'Relentless' banner and check them out.

Then a few weeks ago a member of our church said that we had an opportunity to host Rev. Jesse Jackson here at ACL, and that he was willing to preach for us. I have to say that I was a little concerned, partly because we only had 3 weeks to get ready (added security and Sunday School teachers, press releases, etc.), but also because I wasn't sure how things would go if he said something overly controversial. The date he offered was 11 November, which is Remembrance Day over here and a very special holiday throughout the UK. The entire nation stops for a 2-minute silence at 11am, no matter what day of the week it falls on. Buses stop, radios and TVs go quiet, and people literally stop in their tracks. The fact that it fell on Sunday this year only raised the stakes for us more. This was the wrong day--perhaps the worst day imaginable--to have something controversial happen at the church. So I was worried, and did a lot of work to shape the service and prep the staff for as many problems as I could predict.

It turned out to be one of our best Sundays here.

Our commitment was to keep our regular service patterns for that Sunday--apart, of course, from a moment of silence to observe Remembrance Day, a famous guest preacher and press snapping photos and shooting video. We had a children's message and the kids sang in the service, I talked about pledging for 2008 (nothing gets in the way of a stewardship campaign), and we spent a couple of minutes working out logistics for out Thanksgiving Potluck lunch next week. (Nothing gets in the way of a good meal, either.)

Rev. Jackson arrived about 20 minutes before the service and sat in my office. His flight from Chicago had landed at 8:30 that morning and he was exhausted, but he was very gracious, chatting with us and even mooching a book off my desk (I'm sending him a copy of it today). He preached on economic justice, and as is often the case with him he straddled the line between controversial and prophetic throughout his message. He read the text from Luke 4 where Jesus opens the Scriptures and reads from Isaiah: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." Rev. Jackson closed his Bible and said: 'Let's talk about that.' He called out companies who build wealth by exploiting working and poor people. He mentioned Citigroup and other lending firms which baited unqualified but eager prospective homebuyers with low interest rates, only to foreclose on them when they couldn't make the higher payments when the rates adjusted. The main point of the sermon, and one which I fully support, was that if Jesus held the plight of the poor as a top priority, then so should his church. We might haggle over what that means and what we should do about it, but we can't ignore that it means something, and that we have a call to do something about it.

But here was the best part of the day for me, mostly because it caught me by surprise. I found myself honored to be in Rev. Jackson's presence.

For all the times I've rolled my eyes at something he's said, or disagreed with his interpretation of an event, or winced at his proposals for one solution or another, I was reminded yesterday that the people who accomplish big things for the culture and for God's Kingdom are those who are willing to take big risks and make big mistakes. Whatever I haven't agreed with is dwarfed--dwarfed--by what this man has accomplished, driven by his faith, for the Kingdom of God.

I'll say it again: I was honored to meet him, honored to pray with him and for him as we prepared for the service, and honored to hear him remind my wealthy congregation that God has a special place in his heart for the poor.

On the way out one of the many members of our church who hold powerful jobs in the financial world told me that he had a conference call the next day with the senior management team of one of the companies mentioned in the sermon. He said to me that his understanding of the issues had been broadened, and that he was going to mention what he'd heard on Sunday morning in his call on Monday.

Those of us who stumble along as pastors, trying to preach and live the gospel in various ministries, hope that someday, in some way, we influence a listener to do something different in their life and work because of the gospel. Yesterday I heard the sermon, saw the reaction, and know that at least one life was changed. It was a pretty good day.

Later that evening Julie and I went to a concert. One of Julie's favorite bands growing up was America, and so I go tickets for us for our 10th anniversary. What a great show that was--they performed so many familiar songs, and their band was really good. The songlist was a walk through junior high for me: Sister Golden Hair, Horse With No Name, Ventura Highway, Tin Man, Lonely People and Sandman. I can still play a few of those songs on the guitar.

The concert was at the Roundhouse in Camden--one of the historic concert venues in London. As it turned out, since the founders of the band grew up in the UK (their dads were US Air Force), the Roundhouse was where they played their first gig in 1970, opening for--get this--Elton John and The Who.

Here's the band...

Friday, November 09, 2007


OK, so the picture was just to hold your attention. That's Ian playing football at Hampstead Heath last weekend--he had a blast.

The update is that I know I haven't posted anything for a while. I've been working in the church's new website. Check it out:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Stewardship Sunday: All Our Stuff

(The following is a sermon I preached to kick off our stewardship season here at the American Church.)

A few weeks ago the Times ran this headline: ‘We’re too rich to be happy, say the Tories, and only radical taxes will save us.’


Now for those of us whose ears are still tuned to American political thinking, can you imagine a candidate saying that in the States?

There were the usual protests from MPs who argued that jobs would be lost in their constituencies, but no one made the valid point that having too much wasn’t the core problem—that the real issue was what people do with what they have—what they do to share their stuff.

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

Now there’s a text for the first day of a stewardship campaign, don’t you think? It’s not an accident that we’re reading this parable today. I’m not trying to be sneaky here—the point of this parable for us today is that it’s important to look at what we have, how we manage it and depend on it, and also to decide how much of that we will invest in the vision and ministry of this church.

Before we dive into what this means for us in this church, let’s look at the story behind the story.

Even though Jesus doesn’t mention it specifically, this parable is about building our lives according to the values of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom isn’t a realm or a place with boundaries and limits. It’s God’s reign over his creation and his power over all things, even death.

This parable opens with a question from someone in the crowd. A guy asks Jesus to mediate in a family dispute between two brothers. I love Jesus’ response here: Man, who made me the solver of your family problems? Jesus saw that at the heart of the question was a problem with greed, and reminds us that our lives aren’t measured by how much stuff we accumulate. And so he tells the crowd a story about a successful guy.

The main character is a good man by the standards of his day: he works, he plans, he saves, he protects his belongings. He expects to enjoy the future he created and protected. We admire people like this! In the detail of the story this is a good farmer—a prudent businessman—a pillar of his community.

But then he had an unusually good year and found himself with a strange problem: he didn’t have anyplace to put his extra stuff. He had barns filled with the crops he’d already grown, and the wealth he’d already accumulated, but now he had to make decision about what to do with the extra. That’s where he gets himself into trouble.

Notice how many personal pronouns he uses in this section. OK, I know that’s the kind of nerdy observation you’ve come to expect from the son of an English teacher, but just count them. The guy makes 11 references to himself in just 3 verses. It has to be some kind of record. But it illustrates the point of what happens when greed overtakes us—when it takes over our sense of balance, our sense of responsibility to our neighbor.

The man decides to tear his old storage facility down and build a bigger one. He decides to take it easy—to eat, drink and be merry—he allows himself to rely fully on his wealth instead of on God.
But then God enters the story and says: ‘You fool, your life is over—who will get what you planned to give yourself?’ Now at this point it’s important to say that the rich man didn’t die because he hoarded everything for himself. As nice as it might be for our stewardship plans to hold that one over all of us, it’s just not the point of the story. The point is that the guy didn’t know when his life would end, which made hoarding his extra stuff the focus of the story.

It’s also important here to say that there was nothing wrong with the way this man had been managing his finances up to that point. There’s a justness, a practicality in this parable, especially to people who enjoy a generous portion of God’s provision (that’s a nice way of referring to people who make a comfortable living). Nothing wrong with providing for yourself and your family. In this parable it’s what we do with the extra that matters. It’s what we do with the extra that marks our commitment to God and his Kingdom. The guy in the parable forgot all that and built bigger barns so he could keep it for himself.

That ends up being the kicker in the story. Jesus is critical at the end of the parable toward those who store up things for themselves without ‘rich toward God’. There are two problems this parable identifies for us.

First, the problem here is with someone who is so consumed by possessions and money that they become the source of his meaning and value.

Second, being so committed—or enslaved—to one’s possessions makes us deaf to the call of God on our lives, and also to the needs of our neighbors.

This parable is spoken to people who have extra—to people who have provided for themselves and their families, and are deciding what to do with the rest of God’s generosity.

So what should we know and do about it?

First: The life of discipleship includes supporting the vision of our faith community, our church. The life of faith makes all kinds of demands on our lives. One of them is to participate in the support of God’s work through the church. Giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient—it’s one of the marks of mature discipleship.

Second: The collective vision of this place is what we support when we give. Take another look at the list of announcements in the bulletin. There’s a lot going on here that is designed to help each one of us experience and enjoy the foundations of a healthy church: fellowship, worship, discipleship and service. You won’t hear much about need over the next few weeks, but you’ll hear a lot about what this church offers as a way of meeting the spiritual and physical and emotional needs of the people who come into this place, and how we can do that more effectively and faithfully.

Finally: the parable we read translates into a faithful consideration of Pledging—making a commitment to give at least a fixed amount for the coming year—pledging allows the leadership of this church to implement a vision, to make plans and dream big about how we’re going to serve each other and this community.

In that article I mentioned from the Times, the political solution to helping people handle their extra money went like this: ‘The main proposals include new taxes on domestic flights, varying rates of vehicle excise duty to punish those most polluting in each class of car, and limits on expanding airports and motorways. Private, non-residential parking should be taxed to discourage car use, and out-of-town supermarkets should be required to charge customers to park.’

I have a better idea.

Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear about the great things going on here at ACL. Take some time to think and pray about how you want to be involved. Your time, your talent and your financial support will play a role in the ways this church can live and share the message of Jesus Christ with each other, with this community, and with the rest of the world.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Little Kindness

In a big city kindness comes in small portions. I suppose that’s different in rural areas—we city folks have the impression that in the country people show kindness in big ways: helping plow the farm, raising barns and the like. Those are huge, but in the city life is completely different. Holding a door open…picking up a dropped glove or scarf or a child’s toy…taking your time getting on the bus so that someone else can make it in time. That’s the sort of thing that happens in a city.

The other day I saw a young woman get on my bus and drop into a seat. She looked exhausted, like a lot of people do here in London. She didn’t look English—my guess that she was one of the thousands of immigrant workers here from Poland or China or Africa, the sort who clean and fix and build most of the city around me. She was dozing in her seat when an elderly woman boarded the bus and labored her way down the aisle. Without a thought—without any consideration of her own tiredness—she got up and offered her seat to the woman. The lady sat down and thanked the young person with a smile that would melt the hardest heart. It was one of those truly beautiful moments that happen in a big, impersonal city. Nobody got a barn built on the bus that day, but someone gave something of themselves to make another person’s day a little better.

What a humbling thing that was to see.

I get frustrated here—with the level of service, with the general melancholy and materialism of the culture, with the overt rudeness of people who seem to have little time or care for others. It’s such an easy place to be cynical—easier by far than any American city I’ve ever been in. I can have days here when I wonder if there is any hope for the gospel—any point of contact that might let me say: ‘you know, that’s sort of like what happens in the Jesus story.’

And then I see a tired young woman give up her seat to a pensioner.

I was reminded today that God made everyone in his image. What that means is not that all people are basically good deep down. I’m certainly cynical enough to reject that idea. But what it does mean is that occasionally, in small ways, we can see something that reminds us of what God wants us to see—how he wants us to behave—and we can share it with someone else. People might not all be good, but there is in every person the potential to be good, to be decent, to be generous to a stranger. I know that may seem small, but that’s the point. With so many people crowded together in this ancient/modern city, it’s the small things that matter. It’s the small kindnesses that stand against the torrent of contrary evidence and remind us that there is a God, that he loves us, and wants us to love each other.

Friday, October 19, 2007

One Disciple's Soundtrack

The following begins an occasional series of reflections on the music that has influenced my life as a Christian. From time to time a song pops back into my head, and I want to try and capture why that song was important to me then, and maybe even now.

So I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately. That’s not really something new, but I’m finding that it’s not as easy as it was in LA to listen to my favorite songs and especially to hear new ones. I don’t drive here. Sometimes I get home from work just as Ian is ready for some play time. There just aren’t the same opportunities to listen to music.

So I’m learning some new ways to keep music in my life.

It helps that I’m using my iPod more, and I’ve started playing music in the background when we have dinner. I can also listen to Jack-FM from LA here at my desk via the internet, which is great. In the mornings here, there are several music-oriented TV shows where I’m catching up with some newer songs as well.

Listening to more music is bringing back a flood of memories. We listened to a lot of music in our home when I was growing up—I can remember singing songs by the Eagles, Queen and Neil Sedaka (not very often you see those three in the same sentence), sitting around our living room. My sisters and I will always have a soft spot for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’

As I got into junior high and high school music functioned for me in the same way it does for a lot of adolescents: it gave words and emotion to things that I thought affected only me. Jackson Browne was especially influential. I learned to sing and play most of his songs on guitar, and to this day the only song I can play on piano is ‘Looking Into You’ from his first album.

When I made a commitment to Christ as a teenager and started to grow in my faith during high school and college, I started listening to some of the Christian rock/pop of the day. Back then, before people realized that it was profitable (and promptly ruined it), Christian pop music had an energy and creativity that mirrored that of other kinds of music. In the early 1980s it seemed that a new Christian band exploded out of Orange County every few weeks or so. This music—faithful, challenging, passionate and innocent—the Christian pop of the early 80s was the soundtrack to my early growth as a Christian. In the same way that secular music gave words to my teenage years, Christian songs gave me the language I was looking for to describe my attempt to be a disciple of Jesus.

Some of these performers might be familiar to you: Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Bob Bennett, Sweet Comfort Band, Allies, Petra, Amy Grant, Mark Heard, Pat Terry... I’ve been listening to some of them again and have found myself transported to very specific times in my formation as a Christian. Over the next few months I want to share some reflections on why or when or how these songs made an impression on my life.

Why do this? Well, for one thing it lets me write about music, which I love to do, and maybe it’ll get you to dig some of these chestnuts up and listen to them again for yourself. Some of you weren’t even born when these songs were popular, though some have worked their way into the worship music canon. Find them on iTunes and hear them in their raw, un-homogenized state.

But the real reason is that today, as I was walking to my office, I listened to a couple of Keith Green songs on my iPod. One in particular—it’s hard to explain how this can happen on a London street—one of his songs put tears in my eyes and I had to stop for a moment before walking on. The song was called ‘Until Your Love Broke Through’, and it took me back to my early college days when I was still trying to figure out what this faith thing meant to me—and what I might mean to a God who seemed so distant and powerful and HUGE. This song—more than any sermon I heard or book I read back then—helped me put into words what I needed to know about an important part of who I am and whose I am. Here are a couple of verses and the chorus:

‘Until Your Love Broke Through’
(Keith Green and Randy Stonehill: 1976)

Like a foolish dreamer who was trying to build a highway to the sky,
All my hopes would come tumbling down and I never knew just why.
Until today when you pulled away the clouds that hung like curtains on my eyes,
Well I’d been blind all those wasted years and I thought I was so wise,
But then you took me by surprise.

Like waking up from the longest dream,
How real it seemed,
Until your love broke through
I’d been lost in a fantasy
That blinded me
Until your love broke through.

All my life I’ve been searching for that crazy missing part,
And with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart.
And now I see that the answer was as easy as just asking you in
And I am so sure I could never doubt your gentle touch again.
It’s like the power of the wind.

It’s funny, but what I remember from back in 1980 or so when I heard this for the first time was that line: ‘with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart’. I remember thinking then that I could picture God just flicking away with his little finger whatever kept me from being with him, from feeling his love for me. At that moment the ‘bigness’ of God became something I could rely on—could rest in—instead of something I needed to fear or avoid. No pun intended, but that was huge. It was a step for me in growing closer to God at a crucial time in my life, and it drew me into a deeper commitment (flaws and all) than I ever thought I would make.

It was that line that got me again this morning as I walked down Cleveland Street from Euston Road in the middle of London. That stone rolls back into its place every so often, and it was a gentle reminder to me, pouring out of my iPod, that God is there, poised to flick it away again when I come to him in faith. Not a bad way to start the day.