Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Different Kind of Calling

Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 1:14-20

I loved reading the Sharpe novels. They tell the story of a common-born soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, moving through each battle all the way to Waterloo. In one of the books we learn a little about how they recruited soldiers back then. A sergeant would go into a pub in a poor town and start buying drinks. When he got his targets good and drunk he would drop a shiny new coin—a King’s Shilling—into their mugs of beer. When they drank it down, if they took the shilling they were in the army. Most of them didn’t even know it until they woke up the next day.

In our second text today we see a different kind of call to service. We continue our journey into the meaning of Jesus with a look at how he called his disciples.

Micah 6:6-8

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O people of God, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Mark 1:14-20

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Isn’t that a dramatic little story? Mark’s Gospel should come with seatbelts attached—it moves so fast though so many stories and teachings. Mark always seems to be saying ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’ or ‘just then’. In Mark’s Gospel there isn’t even time for the story of Jesus’ birth. He gets right into the thick of it with John the Baptist coming to prepare the way and Jesus being tempted in the desert—all of that happens in the first 13 verses of the first chapter.

In our text this morning, Jesus seems to walk in out of nowhere and recruit a handful of people to become his disciples. So much happens here in so little time. Some background will help as we catch our breath.

There are five main things we should know about this text:

First, it’s hard to miss the reference to the Kingdom of God here. By now it should be clear to all of us that the Kingdom of God is a central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and of the whole New Testament. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is not a place with limits or boundaries, but instead God’s reign over all creation and his power over all things, even death. In our text Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is near—that it’s time to live new lives in a new way.

The second thing to notice is the way Jesus calls these people into service. “Come and follow me,” he said. That’s would have been a familiar thing for students of a rabbi to hear back then. The idea was that a student would walk behind a rabbi, who would teach as they moved from place to place. “Follow me” was Jesus’ way of telling these guys that he had something he wanted to teach them.

But what about the next line? What does it mean to be a fisher of men, of people? This one is important, because it meant a lot more than just being recruiters or people who knew how to entice people to join the cause. It’s not like the sergeants in the Sharpe novels, who knew how to trick people into joining the army.

Fishing for people was an Old Testament image that would have been familiar to these men when Jesus said it. In a handful of passages in the Jewish Scriptures, God is the one who is doing the fishing— In the Dead Sea Scrolls one passage says: ‘And you have set me in a place of exile among many fishermen who stretch a net upon the face of the waters…’

It was often a promise of judgement or punishment, but Jesus turns it around here and makes it a promise of grace and salvation. Jesus was calling these guys to God’s work, to the gathering of people in preparation for God’s calling and purpose. And these guys jumped at the chance to join in.

But there’s another thing to notice about the call to become ‘fishers of men.’ Where the traditional rabbis called students to follow them around and learn about the Scriptures, about theology and whatever else was in the rabbi curriculum, Jesus offered something different. He didn’t just invite them to know—he called them to do. He called them to join him in the actual work of the ministry of the Messiah. They would have been crazy to turn him down.

The fourth thing is to notice the sense of urgency in this story. The people who are called by Jesus tended to drop what they were doing and follow immediately—no questions asked, Jesus said follow, and they did. Even for Mark’s Gospel, which has people rushing around from story to story—even in Mark’s gospel this part stands out. Jesus makes a sudden call to discipleship, which is followed by an immediate response to follow.

Finally, and related to that, think about the last two verses in our text, when Jesus called James and John: “Without delay he called them,” the passage says, “and they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” In this part of the story we learn something important about the call of Jesus. James and John weren’t just workers, they were managers or part-owners in the fishing business.

There’s a clear distinction in the text between them and the hired men. And yet they still followed without question, leaving their own father behind. The call of Jesus here is so compelling that it replaces all other claims on their lives. Let that sink in a bit. The call of Jesus was so powerful that it trumped every other plan or desire or responsibility in these men’s lives.

In the end what Simon and Andrew and James and John understood was something about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. One theologian talks about the moment when believers surrender their previous understanding of themselves, and take up Christ’s call. Another author takes a more blunt view, and says: ‘You can’t say: “No, Lord,” because each word annuls the other.’

That may be the most important thing to learn from this passage. We tend to think of Jesus as a sort of weak, mild, passive sort of guy who drew people to himself just by being nice. Here we see the Jesus that could, in a just a few sentences, connect himself to centuries of Jewish hope, and call people to give up their previous understanding of themselves, and to follow him.

As we focus this season on the meaning of Jesus, a key part of that is recognizing the calling he places on each one of our lives. So what is that call?

Before we get to that, as old as it makes me feel to say this out loud, I’ve been involved in some kind of ministry for more than 25 years now. Whether it’s with middle school kids or senior citizens, young single adults or families with small children, there’s one type of question that everyone asks. It comes out in different forms, but it goes something like this:

What does God want me to do with my life?
How can I get a better sense of God’s leading?
Why won’t God tell me what he wants from me?

In the Bible we see God call people in all kinds of ways:

In a burning bush
On stone tablets
Through angels
Maybe in a voice from heaven

Most of us right now are thinking: Whew! None of those things have ever happened to me. Maybe I’m off the hook!

Not so fast.

There’s no denying that the Bible can be a confusing book sometimes. The stories are set in a different time and culture. The values don’t always match up with ours. Sometimes there are events and practices that offend us, which makes it hard to know where we can find teaching in the Bible that matters for us—that applies to our lives.

But there are a handful of passages in the Bible that give some pretty clear instruction on how our lives are supposed to be—what they’re supposed to look like—what we’re supposed to be doing.

Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to hear God’s voice or wait for some kind of sign from him about hour lives. Or when that doesn’t happen we can think that we’re in the clear, that we’re off the hook somehow until God can muster up enough volume to make himself heard.

Well while we’re waiting for lightning bolts and stone tablets, there are a few passages of Scripture that tell us pretty clearly what to do in the meantime. We heard one of those this morning:

‘And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.’

That one is so clear that we often forget it’s even in the Bible. It’s not twelve plagues or ten commandments or even seven woes. It’s three things—three things that sum up what God wants from us. Three things that define what God’s call is on our lives.

We’re called to do justice: working to make sure everyone has everything they’re entitled to.

We’re called to love mercy: making sure we’re prepared to give people more than they deserve.

We’re called to walk humbly with God: remembering who we are and whose we are.

That’s our call—our assignments as followers of Jesus Christ.

Richard Mouw is a Christian philosopher and the president of the seminary I attended. Years ago he wrote a little book titled ‘Called to Holy Worldliness’, about our responsibility to engage the world around us in faith. Here’s part of what he wrote:

‘We must carry out this assignment with the zeal and spirit of self-sacrifice that have been typical of missionaries. For those who have been willing to follow through on their Christian commitment, no matter what the cost, the goal has never been simply success or personal happiness or worldly acclaim. The goal has been that of obedience itself, in the knowledge that the God who gives the call to act obediently is also the one who sent his own son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’

The goal for us—even when it seems too much for us to complete—the goal for us is that obedience. The call on each of our lives is to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, and to be fishers of all people.

That’s a tall order, but with God’s help it can be the measure for everything we do individually and as a community of faith. Jesus is calling—all that’s left is for us to answer.

As we reflect on Christ’s call in and on our lives, we pray for strong hearts, for pure hearts, and for clean hearts. Let’s stand together and sing: Create in Me a Clean Heart O God. Make this your prayer today. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Just another perfect day...

Sunday was a really fun day for us. Julie started the day by browning a roast which made the entire house smell great. She put it in the crock pot and we all headed down to church.

The service went well—a nice turnout and good music and Kate preached a good sermon. There were visitors and some folks I hadn’t seen for a while, and even though it was a half-term week we had a lot of kids, which always livens the place up a bit. The kids played hard and loud during the coffee hour, and I loved it.

After church we went to lunch at one of our favorite places (Zizzi). Pasta, salad and a bottle of wine—just the right way to kick off the rest of a Sunday. The day was so beautiful that we decided to get on a bus and ride somewhere…anywhere. We boarded a 27 and rode past Ian’s school and Paddington Station, and headed toward the Kensington area. We saw the new Whole Foods and decided to get off the bus and go in for a while—Julie had been there but I hadn’t seen it yet.

We walked in through the bakery (which is really unfair placement), and I went straight to the infamous cheese room. There was a stand with samples of a good California Zinfandel and we, er, sampled it a bit. Moving past it toward the cheese I sampled a great cheddar and a sheep cheese and a stilton. Then I saw it: the prize item for any clergyman goofing off on a Sunday afternoon.

It was called The Stinking Bishop.

It certainly lived up to its name, but it was also delicious. Ian laughed after I told him what a bishop was, and he started calling it The Smelly Minister and cracking himself up. I bought 150 grams of it, along with some other cheeses, and added two bottles of Ravenswood and some warm loaves of bread. We got back on the bus and started the journey home.

Now the 27 was sort of crowded but we got some seats upstairs. Along the way three separate sets of people sat behind us, and I heard each one whisper to the other something like, ‘man, what stinks in here?’ I wanted to say that it was the Bishop, but I kept quiet. On the way home Julie and I remembered that we had a roast still cooking at home, and just as we were done laughing about that I got a text from our friend Tom Barlow asking what we were doing. He came with two of his daughters and we ended up having three kinds of cheese, two different loaves of bread, a roast with vegetables and some wine.

It was a great feast, a true blessing and a perfect end to a beautiful Sunday.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday in London (in February)

OK, so if you're reading this in SoCal you may not think it sounds so great, but we're in a run of unbelieveable weather in London right now. Today it was in the low-50s and crystal clear. In early-February. It's amazing.

We got up and had breakfast, then walked up to Hampstead from our house. It was mild enough today to wear a t-shirt and a fleece pullover--no coat required. We went to a place we like called Carluccio's and had some pastries with amazing coffee, then walked up through the village and got a bus over to Finchley Road where the local Homebase is located.

Homebase makes me miss a real store like Home Depot.

I mean, the stuff they sell there is like toy tools. I can't imagine any of my tradesman friends and family being caught dead carrying the junk they sell. I'm a minister/historian and even I would be embarrassed to be seen with the paintbrushes they were selling. Seriously.

But back to our amazing day.

We had lunch at a Chinese place called The Green Cottage, which is owned by a member of the Chinese church that meets in our Sanctuary. We had crispy duck and chow mein, with a side of greens that were delicious. Nice.

We went home but Ian wanted to go ride his scooter, so I went out with him while Julie stayed home and read some Jane Austen. We went over to Primrose Hill, which is one of the really nice open spaces overlooking the entire city. There were about 200 people at the top, just milling around and drinking wine and looking at the view. That's where Ian is in the picture...looking so serious.

We rode down the hill and back toward home (still no coats, by the way). Ian got tired so we got on a bus where we ran into one of our neighbors (didn't hurt). We rode up to Belsize Park so Ian could get one last downhill before calling it a day. We stopped at a little bookstore and bought Ted Hughes' The Iron Man, which is the book that was adapted into 'The Iron Giant', one of the best animated films ever.

We're home now, getting ready to have dinner and watch Harry Potter 4. I just opened a window to get some cool air in February.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

An Invitation to Lent

I shared this last year on Ash Wednesday: it's my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show Me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking a month or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

That's a pretty stark choice, isn't it? Guilt, hopelessness and suicide...or pain, repentance, tears and restoration. The choice is obvious but neither is without suffering. That's helpful to me this year. We can often fall into the trap of believing in black and white options, of good and bad, of decisions without nuance. Nouwen's paragraph reminds me that life isn't like that, and that it probably shouldn't be. Life presents us with choices and decisions that involve gain and loss on both sides, that require us to balance our experience of joy with some sadness, or to temper our grief with glimpses of hope.

Lent is a time of year for reflecting on our need for a savior, for a champion. That's an amazing thing to type, now that I look at it, but I'm instantly reminded of the full range of ingredients that go into that mix. Enjoying the gift of a God's presence in the form of a Messiah is wonderful, but I can't fully embrace that joy without an awareness of how my sin (our sin, really) pushed the Messiah onto the Cross. The discipline of Lent is to re-train our hearts and minds to consider life, all of life, in that sober, balanced way. It's a way that leads to the Cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to forgiveness, restoration, consummation and a bunch of other good things. Lent reminds us all not only that we have a savior, but of how much we need one as well.

In the Scottish Book of Common Order there is a prayer designated for today, for the beginning of the Lenten season. Make it yours as you begin this sober journey that leads to the Cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made,
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that, lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
we may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect forgiveness and peace.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mission: The State of a Different Union

John 21:15-17

It’s been a long time now but I remember my dating days. One of the practices of dating couples is to pause every so often for a DTR. Is that a familiar set of initials for you? I’ve heard it still in use around this place lately. The DTR is the 'Define the Relationship' conversation two people have when they want to describe out loud what they're doing together and what they're future might look like. Defining the relationship you’re in is an important part of taking the next step—a deeper step together.

Our text today describes a ‘define the relationship’ conversation between Jesus and Peter. This story takes place after the resurrection, and Jesus has just had a meal with Peter and some of the others.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"

He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."
The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?"
He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep.

Peter is really one of the great characters in the entire Bible. He’s brave and faithful—but he can also just as quickly show himself to be dimwitted and cowardly. He’s the first guy out of the boat—literally when he walks on water—but in one of the most dramatic scenes toward the end of Jesus’ life, Peter has three chances to acknowledge that he was a follower of Jesus, and three times he denies even knowing him.

Too often Peter speaks and acts before he thinks, which really just makes him just like the rest of us, only more so.

Our passage today comes near the end of John’s story of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples have left their homes and families and lives to follow Jesus around the countryside and into Jerusalem, only to see him arrested, beaten, convicted and executed. He comes back to them after three days, but they’re still traumatized—and who can blame them—they’re still trying to figure out how things got so bad so quickly.

Peter probably feels more lost and wounded and frustrated than the rest of the disciples. All he had ever been was a humble fisherman, until this strange rabbi called him into ministry by saying ‘Follow me’. And now according to Jesus he was supposed to be the human foundation of the Christian church—the community of the faithful—but instead he stood in a public square and showed the world just how little faith he really had. Then he watched his teacher—his master—crucified—and then he had to face him again after the miracle of Easter. This is high drama here. So what does Peter do?

He goes back to work, out into his boat and starts fishing again. In the passage just before our text, Peter and his co-workers went out on the water but had an awful night—they didn’t catch anything, which must have added to their sense of frustration and hopelessness. Jesus calls out to them to try one more time—they didn’t recognize him at first—and they ended up with more fish than they could manage.

As soon as Peter realized who it was, he didn’t hesitate—he jumped back into the water and swam to shore to have breakfast—grilled fish and bread—with Jesus. After they had eaten, Jesus turned to Peter, sitting with the others, and started the real grilling.

‘Peter, do you truly love me more than anything?’

Peter responded saying: ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ And Jesus said: ‘Feed my lambs.’

But Jesus didn’t let it go at that, and so he asked him again:

‘Do you truly love me?’

Again Peter said: ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ And Jesus responded: ‘Take care of my sheep.’

It’s the third time that makes it clear to Peter what was happening. Jesus says to Peter: ‘Do you love me?’

Peter’s heart broke because he knew right then and there that he was getting a chance to make up for blowing three chances to demonstrate his faith—three chances to be the person Jesus seemed to think that he was.

Peter responded by saying: ‘Lord, you know all things—you know that I love you.’ And once again Jesus simply says: ‘Feed my sheep.’

This passage is known by a lot of different names. Mostly it’s some version of the Reinstatement of Peter, or the Restoration of Peter—anything that begins with RE, meaning basically that it’s about a ‘do-over’, a second chance. Peter is being forgiven by Jesus here—forgiven for his faithlessness and denials—and getting another chance to be the person God called him to be.

There are some important things to notice in this story:

First: The ‘Do you love me?’ questions teach us about the values of God’s kingdom. Notice that he doesn’t say ‘Are you sorry?’ or ‘Have you suffered enough?’ or ‘Are you ever going to do that again?’ All Jesus asks of Peter is that one simple thing: Do you love me? In God’s eyes that’s all that really matters. We can haggle over everything as we learn to be a church together, but in the values of the Kingdom the only thing that matters is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind.

Second: Peter doesn’t defend himself. Not that he really has anything to say in his own defense, but he’s known for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and it’s a nice surprise that he doesn’t do it here. Instead, he calls the only character witness he can muster up at that point, Jesus himself. Notice that every time Peter answers, he says ‘You know I love you’… ‘YOU of all people know how much I love you.’ Peter gets three chances to say out loud how much he loves his Lord and Savior—three chances to erase the memory of the way he abandoned Jesus at his crucifixion.

Finally: The response from Jesus to each answer from Peter is the road map for living the life we were meant to live. It’s not enough just to say or sing how much we love God. It’s not enough to be forgiven and restored and cleansed. When Christ reconciles us he reinstates us and sets us aside for a purpose: Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep.

The response of the faithful to God’s gift of restoration is service in his name—it’s taking our part in the mission of the church of Jesus Christ and doing the work he called us to do. The mission of the church is to respond to the gift it’s been given by serving the rest of the world. Remember what Jesus said to Peter? Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep. That call is on us now. That call is what defines our relationship with the God who made us and sustains us.

So what do we do about it?

How a church serves is an indication of what it believes—it’s a glimpse into how it understands Christ’s reconciling, restoring work—it’s a heart monitor that measures signs of life. Mission is the fourth pillar of a healthy church, after Fellowship, Worship, and Discipleship.

Mission and service are the mark of an organic church, a church that is growing from the inside out—a church that has looked the Christ in his eyes and said: ‘Lord, you know all things—you know that we love you—imperfectly, in our brokenness, driven by all sorts of distractions. You know that we love you.’

What separates hollow churches from churches that overflow with life, is how we respond to the next line in the scene: Jesus Messiah looks us right back and says: ‘Feed my lambs—take care of my sheep—protect the innocent—house the poor—share my saving gospel with anyone who will listen. How we respond to that is a measure of our pulse as a church—as a community of fellow travellers, trying be faithful as we walk this journey of following Jesus.

None of that happens without a plan, though, and there’s a new plan taking shape here.

On Thursday I met with a representative of Habitat for Humanity here in the UK. We talked over this church’s history with their work—a lot of us who have come here in the last year or two may not know that this church has sent teams to work on projects in Romania, Zambia, Northern Ireland, Poland and Armenia. It’s time that we started doing something like that again.

On Thanksgiving Day we heard from Terry Tennens, the director of the International Justice Mission here in the UK. When we start our Lent Bible Study on the 21st, we’re going to be using a study guide the IJM has created on the biblical call to justice. If you’re interested in learning more about what the Bible says about justice for the weak and the oppressed, come join us for the four Thursday evenings here at the church.

Closer to home, your Church Council has made a decision in faith to devote 10% of this church’s budget to serving other people—to the work of Christ’s mission here and around the world. If you’re interested in playing a part in deciding where some of that support will go, there’s a new missions committee forming this spring when the new Council begins. It’s hard work, but…you know what? That’s it—there is no ‘but’—it’s hard work, but it’s some of the best work you’ll ever do.

This past week we heard a state of the union address—whatever you think about the current administration, you can’t ignore the fact that these last few years have represented an extremely difficult time to be in leadership. If nothing else, this week we were reminded again that it’s so much easier to be in opposition—to snipe from the sidelines—than it is to govern—to lead in challenging times.

What we see in this call to service is the state of a different kind of union. The grilling that Peter got from Jesus is a reminder that our union with Christ grows out of our repentance, and more importantly, out of Christ’s endless capacity to forgive us—to restore us—and to call us into action.

Our part of that union is to hear Christ’s call to go out into the world and serve it with passion and wisdom and joy and faith and love. Not as good people who have earned our jobs, but as people who have been reconciled and restored and reinstated. As we come to the table this morning—as we celebrate Communion—we remember what Christ has done and offers to do in each one of our lives, and also in this community of faith. This meal is partly to remind us that we have some feeding to do. Come to the Table.