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: