Monday, June 29, 2009

Peace in Pieces

Philippians 4:4-7

Years ago I broke something of Julie’s that was in way too many pieces for me to fix. I took every bit of it that I could find and put it into a box and stored it on top of one of my bookshelves. Over the next few years I had to move that box a dozen times or so—when we repainted the office, when we moved furniture around, on those rare occasions when I dusted the top of the bookcase. When we got some new bookcases I found the box of pieces and moved it into the closet, up on another shelf where it sat until we packed up to move to London back in 2006.

I don’t know what made me keep that box for so long. The pieces inside were of something that had been precious to Julie, but there wasn’t any hope that I was going to be able to fix it on my own. And so I carried it and moved it from place to place until there was no place left to store it.

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

On the front of your bulletin you can read the passage from Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit—the nine qualities or characteristics or behaviors that show the way the Spirit transforms us into mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Today we’re going to take a look at what it means to say the Spirit produces ‘peace’ in our lives.

But first, take a look at the passage from Galatians. Notice again that ‘fruit’ is singular here—it’s like that in the original language, too. All nine of these are the fruit of the Spirit—not just any one or two of them. This is not a smorgasbord. We can’t say ‘I’m loving and faithful, but don’t ask me to have any self-control.’ Or ‘I’m quite happy being gentle and good, as long as I don’t have to be patient with people who annoy me.’

The fruit of the Spirit is a package deal, and that’s crucial for our understanding this summer of what the Spirit does in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit is expressed in all nine of these important ways.

That’s important, because it builds on the concepts we’ve been talking about all year.

We started back in February with an extended conversation about the way things were supposed to be. We were made to live in God’s perfect Shalom, a sense of wholeness and completeness. The ‘webbing together of God, humans and creation in justice, fulfillment and delight.’ Remember that?

And when that perfect Shalom was broken—when it was shattered into pieces—God provided a way back to him—a way to put the pieces back together—a way back to wholeness and the way we were meant to live. We’ve been talking about the Atonement as God’s drama in three acts—as God’s invitation to come and live the way he made us to live in the first place. The first two acts were Christ’s death on the cross as God’s response to the problem of sin, and then Christ’s resurrection that demonstrates God’s power over all things, even death.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is the third act in that play, and it brings with it a quality of life that we haven’t seen in a long, long time. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit describe what that Shalom life is supposed to look like. It describes what it can look like when we let the Spirit live in us and work through us.

The city of Philippi was an interesting part of the Roman Empire. It was a retirement community for veterans of the Roman legions, and a very patriotic and nationalistic place. It was also a place where strong women had a long tradition of running things: businesses, private armies, and one source says that women in Philippi regularly negotiated treaties with other cities and states. Paul loved the Philippians—this letter is the most personal of all his writings. We’re going to spend some time in Philippians in the coming year.

Paul writes this letter while he’s in prison awaiting execution. He has no idea when his life might be taken from him, but his confidence in God is so great that in the first section of this letter he makes a bold statement: Whether he lives or dies he trusts that God has a plan for him. ‘For to me,’ Paul says, ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain.’

Paul is clearly operating with a completely different set of values here. Let’s tally it up: He’s in prison for sharing his faith, he’s separated from his friends and home and work, and he’s waiting to see when and how his death sentence is going to be carried out.

By any of our measures Paul is in an awful place, and yet he sees it through the perspective of one who purpose and calling comes from God, and is measured by the values that come from living a life of faithful discipleship. It’s not that Paul doesn’t care about his life. The point is that Paul cares about his life in the context of his devotion to the one who gave him that life in the first place. He’s not being flippant about suffering and dying—I’m sure he would choose not to be a martyr—but he’s being honest about what his own life means within the larger task of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to a hungry world.

In our text Paul directly addresses some people in the church who were having a hard time working together—two women who were leaders in the church in Philippi. That’s in the verses just before our text. Here he is, waiting for his own execution, and he’s concerned about an argument between people he cares about in a church he loves. Amazing.

In our text Paul is still talking about living radical lives marked by the Spirit—notice the other examples of ‘spirit life’ in the text:

There’s joy. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ Really? I still have a hard time believing that Paul was rejoicing as he sat in his cell, and yet part of me is envious of Paul—of the strength of his faith. I wonder what it would be like to live that way—to genuinely feel that way.

And there’s another example of the Spirit’s work in this text. ‘Let your gentleness be evident to all.’ Everyone? Seriously. It’s hard enough to be gentle with people we love sometimes, but everyone? In our Spring Bible study here we talked for a long time about how hard it is to show love and patience to people who annoy us or threaten us.

And then the kicker: And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. I love this part, because he’s not saying just that God’s peace is so great that we can’t even comprehend it. He’s saying that the peace of the Spirit isn’t always going to make sense to us—it’s not always going to conform to our values.

How does the Spirit show through us in the form of peace?

It’s far too easy to reduce this call to peace as an invitation to ‘inner peace.’ You know what I mean: So much of the talk about spirituality in our culture is offering a sort of detachment from the cares of the world. There’s a Facebook advertisement for a Kabbalah retreat in the Peak District, and the banner at the top says that I can ‘De-Stress and Be Inspired.’

The guy in front of the Scientology office down the street is forever inviting me in for a stress test, as if the reduction of stress is what life is about. That one bugs me especially because I do my best work under stress—why would he want to take that away from me? That’s just mean.

And then we come to the fruit of the Spirit. We read our text and we’re tempted to miss the truly radical gift that’s being offered. Let me say that a different way: to reduce the fruit of the Spirit to a list of nice qualities to have is a complete misreading not only of the text, but of God’s intent for our lives. The fruit of the spirit represent a new way of relating to each other—to our families and friends and even to strangers.

The fruit of the Spirit describe a radically different way of approaching the real concerns of this world. They don’t call us to detach—to find serenity or calmness or our bliss, whatever that means. The fruit of the Spirit are the mark of living life as if God exists—as if the Lord of the Universe actually has something to say and do and transform in the way things work.

Which brings us back to ‘peace’ as evidence that the Spirit is working in our lives.

One of the small benefits of occasional insomnia is that every once in a while I’m up late enough to see the CBS Evening News from the States on Sky. I saw an amazing story last week.

Dan Cherry was an American pilot in the Vietnam War. During his service he was in a famous dogfight with a North Vietnamese pilot—the History Channel even made a documentary about it complete with actual voice recordings and computer imagery.

In the end Dan Cherry shot the other plane out of the sky, but he always wondered what happened to the other pilot. After the release of the documentary he went looking for the pilot he shot down, and ended up being reunited with him on a Vietnamese version of ‘This is Your Life’, a show that brought long lost friends back together.

Now these two warriors weren’t friends, but they became close after meeting each other in person. They’ve traveled together, Cherry wrote a book about his experiences, and in the closing image of the report, the two men are holding each other’s grandchildren, and the narrator said:

‘And just like that, the War went away.’

This doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? I mean, if anyone has a right to hold a grudge, it’s the North Vietnamese pilot who had his plane blown out from under him. And yet, even though it defies logic—even though it ‘transcends all understanding’—these two men found…and made…peace between them.

If these two enemies can experience the gift of peace between them, then there really isn’t much good reason why we can’t be agents of peace in our lives—in this world that cries out for the hope that comes from an authentic life of peace. The truly radical, mysterious and transforming power of peace from the Holy Spirit is that it accomplishes for us what we can’t do on our own.

That leaves us with some questions.

How do we make the war go away?

How do we acknowledge the broken pieces we carry around with us from place to place?

How do we take those pieces out of their hiding places and let God reassemble them?

How do we step aside and let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us to restore the Shalom we were made to enjoy—to produce fruit in our lives—to show himself in qualities that mark us as followers of Jesus?

As with most things that matter, there aren’t easy answers to any of these questions.

But if you take anything away from this message today, I hope it’s that you see peace in all its forms as a central part of what it means to be a Christian person.

Being forgiving, generous, loving agents of peace to our families and friends, and to strangers and even enemies—that’s a part of what it means to have the Holy Spirit living and working in each one of us.

In that sense this isn’t as much something we have to do, as something we’re called to allow the Spirit to do in and through our lives.

The call on each one of us is to live that way even when it goes against the culture, or conventional wisdom, or even just the prevailing winds. The call on each one of us is to be agents of the Prince of Peace, even when it surpasses all our understanding. Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Bottom Line

Galatians 5:1-6

The roommates I had in seminary were a big part of my experience there. Most of us liked to talk—about everything: from theology to sports to movies to, well, just about anything. We could stretch a conversation about theology deep into the night. Sometimes it was just for fun. I had a housemate for a while who had grown up in the Mennonite tradition—she was a committed pacifist. In the theological discussions it became our goal to aggravate her to the point when she would hit us, just for fun. She had a mean right.

I had a housemate who wasn’t much of a talker. Now that’s an unfortunate personality trait in an institution that was preparing people to talk for a living. In one conversation with the quiet guy I can remember him getting agitated and uncomfortable with how long it was taking us to talk about some topic. When he couldn’t take it anymore he blurted out: “Would you please just ‘bottom line’ this for me?”

‘Just get to the point,’ he meant—what’s the one thing I need to know in order to move on.

In our text this morning we see the apostle Paul get to a similar moment. He’s been making a case for several chapters now, but he’s getting to the point—the bottom line.

1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ That’s the bottom line. Hold that thought—we’re going to come back to that.

We’ve been talking about the Atonement as a drama that happens in three acts: the Cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the Cross, a price is paid for the sin and brokenness in all of our lives. The resurrection—the Easter miracle—demonstrates that God has power over all things, even death. And the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s way of inspiring and empowering each of us to be the people he made us to be in the first place.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is something like the final ingredient in God’s plan for the church. He’s called it, redeemed it, demonstrated his power to give it confidence, and now he’s made good on his promise to come and make the community of faith into what it was meant to be—to complete the recipe for his church.

Last week our two youth preachers helped us understand who the Holy Spirit is. Through the summer we’re going to look at how the Spirit works in us and through us—where do we see the evidence for the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our church?

Earlier we heard the passage from this chapter about the fruit of the Spirit. Nine qualities or characteristics or behaviors that show how the Spirit transforms us into mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Notice that ‘fruit’ is singular here—it’s like that in the original language, too. Now little details like that aren’t always helpful, but in this case it prevents us from picking and choosing from the list. All nine are the fruit of the Spirit. We can’t say ‘I’m loving and faithful, but don’t ask me to have any self-control.’ Or ‘I’m quite happy being gentle and good, as long as I don’t have to be patient with people who annoy me.’

This is a package deal, and that’s crucial for our understanding this summer of what the Spirit does in our lives. Over the next 10 weeks we’ll be looking at each of these qualities—these pieces of evidence that show the Spirit at work. But just because we’re looking at one each Sunday doesn’t mean that they stand alone. The fruit of the Spirit is expressed in all nine of these important ways.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians addresses a specific context, and it’s important for us to understand that context as we begin this study. Paul was writing to a community that was getting conflicting messages about how to make a commitment to Christ. There was a strong group within the church that believed you had to become a Jew first in order to become a Christian. They taught that you had to follow the rules and food restrictions of Judaism in order to join the Christian church. They end up being called Judaizers, because they required Judaism to be a part of Christianity.

Now the whole idea of circumcision as a metaphor can be pretty uncomfortable for us (no preacher really ever wants to talk about it) but it was a key part of the process of following this path into a Jewish form of the Christian faith. In other words, when a new members class was being offered, the prize for finishing was the requirement that you get circumcised before becoming a member of the church. I wonder how many new members we'd get if that was the 'prize.'

Circumcision is an initiation into a specific way of believing and living. Now for a lot of us the idea of initiation conjures up images from movies like ‘A Man Called Horse’ or ‘Animal House’: Kevin Bacon saying “Thank you sir. May I have another.” But it’s a lot more than just that.

The other night I participated in a small part in the Court of Honor of the American School’s Scout Troop. The process of moving through the ranks of Scouting, from Cub Scout to Eagle Scout—all of that begins with an initiation—an induction where you pledge to follow a certain path in a certain direction, and to follow it until completion. In part of that ceremony the Scout Leader says this:

“The more you participate and the more effort you put in, the stronger your flame becomes and more difficult to extinguish. At some point, your flame will become a burning ember deep in your heart that will be impossible to ever put out.”

As Paul uses it, Circumcision is an initiation into a promise to follow a certain path—the path of trying to earn our way back to God strictly by following all of the rules of the Jewish Law. The promise made in circumcision is to follow the Law until completion.

One writer put it this way: Paul ‘knows that circumcision symbolizes something very important—the identification of the Jewish people, the mark of those who live their lives under the jurisdiction of the torah…when a Gentile receives circumcision, he declares his own identity in terms of the torah,’ of the entire Law of Judaism.

It’s important for us to understand here that Paul isn’t accusing the Judaizers of some horrible sin. He’s warning them that by trusting the law for their redemption they’re missing out of the limitless gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s point, as you can see if you read the whole letter, is that Christ offers us a different path to God—that the Atonement heals our relationships in a new way, a way that begins not with Circumcision, but with baptism.

And it’s in baptism that we experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives individually and as a community of faith. That transforming power shows itself in us as fruit—as product—as visible evidence that something dramatic and profound is happening in us. We see the Holy Spirit at work when we see lives that are defined by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Today our focus is on that ‘bottom line’ statement that Paul makes in our text about ‘faith expressing itself through love.’

Victor Paul Furnish is one of the great scholars of Paul and his writings. He said this about our text:

“…for Paul, faith’s obedience is an obedience in love, an obedience that has the character of love because it is grounded in God’s own love by which the sinner has been claimed and reconciled to God. The Christian is summoned to love in a double sense: to be loved and to be loving. Within Paul’s writings those two are inseparable.”

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

That expression of love by way of faith is a two-way street.

First, we show our faith—and the work of the Spirit in our lives, when we live as people who are confident in God’s love for us. When we live as people who are grateful for the way Christ’s atoning work demonstrates just how fully and completely God loves us. Remember the sentence I gave us to memorize on Easter Sunday?

We celebrate Easter to remember the miraculous raising from the dead of Jesus the Messiah—God in human form, who came and lived and served and loved and died in order to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for all of his creation.

Part of being a loving community—of being people whose faith is expressed through love—is living as if we believe that behind the Easter miracle there is a God who loves us and wants the best for us and who offers to shape us into the people we were meant to be.

Allowing ourselves to be loved is one of the most important ways we grow in our faith and our understanding of who God is.

But that love is meant to be turned outward, too.

‘Faith expressing itself through love’ is really the bottom line when it comes to how we live the Christian faith beyond these walls and beyond ourselves. If it’s true that we’re a community who gathers not because of anything we’ve done, but because we’ve been loved by the God who made us, then that naturally turns us outward to a world that hasn’t yet experienced that gift.

As we close this school year it’s good for us to look back on the way this has happened here. The Soup Kitchen serves this community five days a week right outside these windows. We partnered with Young Life to reach out to kids in our community who didn’t have a Christian group to enjoy. During the winter months we offered hot meals and a place to sleep to a group of homeless people with nowhere else to go.

But even within the church we’re starting to see how important it is that we love each other. This has always been a welcoming kind of church, but our hospitality continues to grow as we welcome visitors and new expats and neighbors to our fellowship.

More significantly, we’re gradually starting to heal some old wounds that keep us from being the church we’re called to be. That process is ongoing, but it’s happening, and it’s a demonstration of the Holy Spirit in this place.

Even as we say goodbye today to some dear friends in this church, we don’t see it as some tragic end to the way we want things. We see it as a transition—in a life that is full of them—for people as they go on to new homes and new communities and new opportunities to serve, and also for us as we wait and see who God brings here next.

We are called to demonstrate God’s love to his world, and it’s a joy to watch and to participate when it happens.

Over the next few months we’re going to spend some time looking at the way the Holy Spirit works in and through each one of us. I want to say again that as we look at the different expressions of the Spirit’s work individually, that we do that knowing that they’re part of a package deal.

God doesn’t love us a la carte—he doesn’t pick and choose which parts of us meet his standard. Because he’s a God of grace—of radical love and generosity—he loves us through and through, without exception and without limits. What he asks in return—not as a precondition but as a grateful response, is that we allow his Spirit to enter in and transform our lives.

As we move through this series over the next few months, remember that it all comes down to this bottom line: What really counts is our faith expressing itself in love to God, to each other, and to the world. Amen.

Let’s remember the source of that love by standing and singing together “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Mini-Reflection on the Atonement

For months now I’ve been thinking about a quote from a book I read this past spring. The book was A Community Called Atonement, by Scot McKnight.

“Atonement is the work of God to create and ready his people for just these things: union with God and communion with others in a place of perfection, with a society of justice and peace and above all worship of the Lamb of God on the throne . . . We need to observe that the biblical language of eternity stokes heated passions to yearn the way Jesus yearned—that God’s kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ Any atonement theory that thinks exclusively of the earth is inadequate, just as any theory that shifts to thinking too much of eternity is also inadequate.” (p.27)

Recent developments among Christian thinkers have pointed to a deeper and more complete understanding of the Atonement as both a doctrine and a source of ethics. Those of us who grew up in or around evangelical traditions can have a limited view: “Christ’s blood cleanses me of my sin and absolves me from the punishment I deserve from an angry, righteous God.”

Now I still believe that, but it’s no longer all I believe about Christ’s atoning work.

I’ve been teaching and preaching for years now that the Kingdom of God is not a realm or a place with limits and boundaries, but rather Christ’s eternal reign—a demonstration of his power over all things, even death. (My American Church in London readers will have that sentence memorized by now.) If that’s the case, then there is much more to Christ’s atoning work than simply my—or anyone’s—personal salvation.

Over the Lenten season I preached a series of messages—indebted to Scot McKnight’s book—on the way the atonement offers healing for our relationship with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth. (You can read those messages if you scroll down far enough to find Lent and Easter.) It’s possible that I’ll spend the rest of my conscious days trying to grasp (and experience) what that truly means.

And that’s a good thing.

Because of all the doctrines we have inherited from our Christian parents, none is more important, more dynamic, or more central to the overall message of the Scriptures than the Atonement. The Atonement describes what God has done to reconcile us in every direction. It’s a gift that gives us at the same time everything that we long for and more than we know we need.

Over the next year we’ll revisit this in more depth. My summer reading is packed with books related to the topics of atonement and justification and hope—stay tuned.

Friday, June 05, 2009

I’m Not Disappointed

I’ve been reading the deeply felt responses to Nick Fiedler’s post describing his disappointment with the Emergent movement. The posts run the gamut from those who lament its loss of outsider status to those who resent the idea that some folks are making a living off of their participation in the movement. One post accuses ‘traditionalists’ of glee that the Emergents are struggling. That's particularly untrue and unfair, as you're about to see.

If you’ve been reading these pages recently you’ll know that I don’t exactly fit the Emergent profile. First off, I’m 46 years old, but that’s not the half of it. I’m also an historian of evangelicalism and a PCUSA-ordained minister in a fairly traditional church. I still believe that denominations, as problematic as they can be, will end up playing a crucial role in the partnership to revive and reform the Christian faith. See what I mean? I’m not really the most likely participant/defender of Emergent-ness.

Maybe that puts me in a helpful place to comment on the current state of things.

It might make good sense to feel a letdown after the heady progress Emergents have made over the past few years. Stale models of both doctrine and church have been challenged—mostly effectively—and some real change has come out of that. New people have come to faith and many who had been wounded by the church rediscovered a faith home. Some of us who were still in the center of traditional church life were provoked (in the best sense of the term) to rethink our understanding of what it meant to be Christians. I participated in a small group of 40-somethings that wrestled with Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy for almost a year, and it was enormously valuable for us…even when we disagreed.

All of those represent astounding achievements in an era marked by secularization and faithlessness.

But historians tend to see movements like this in a different light. Most of us have expected some sort of leveling off or decline in the trajectory of the Emergent movement, and many of us have hoped that the maturing of the project wouldn’t become its downfall. The best of the correctives in church history have started as parallel movements that end up realigning with the broader body of Christ. That process of re-merging has given the church its energy and seasoning at various crucial times since the Reformation.

Even if we just focus on a handful of examples from the last century or so, we can see how this has happened. (Now please note that these are quantitative examples, not qualitative ones.) Separatist fundamentalists evolved into the new evangelical intellectual resurgence of the mid-20th century (the source of places like Fuller Seminary). The Pentecostal and charismatic movements—which also saw themselves as being a separate, new way of ‘doing’ church, folded back into the broader church movement and changed, well, just about everything. More recently the Willow Creek experiment, which for a while tried to conform existing churches to its model, ended up becoming more flexible and malleable and usable, resulting in a far more lasting influence on the broader church.

If the Emergent movement as we have seen and experienced it over the past few years doesn’t turn out to change everything, and remake the Christian Way from scratch, it will still be credited with having had an enormous impact on the church. If it folds back into the broader church, while retaining its transformative perspective on the way churches operate, would that really be so bad?

What the Emergent movement has happily avoided is the unchecked, unmanaged expansion and hubris that killed off Promise Keepers (remember them?). For the complaints I’m reading from Emergents about people in the movement making a living at it, money has not become either the driving force or life blood of Emergent ministry. That’s a great thing. That’s a sign of wisdom and prudence and maturity (sorry for the traditionalist litany there) that PK and other flashes in the pan never had.

Mostly what I want to say—from my place on the margins of it all—comes from my own admiration and appreciation for what Emergent thinkers and leaders have given to the broader church.

I’m not disappointed at all.

As I was growing up the concern among younger visionaries was how to escape from the materialism of Boomer Christianity and into a more authentic expression of Jesus-following. We took that into our lives and ministries—traditional and not—to the benefit of the broader church.

The Emergent movement is poised to do the very same thing.

Some will choose to participate in established churches, but will bring new energy and critical change to those bodies. Some will remain outside the mainstream and provide important correctives to the rest of us as we stumble along in churches that may or may not want to grow out of their calcified state. Either way, the influence of the Emergent project—whether in doctrine or ecclesiology or ethics—is here to stay.

As one who has benefitted from Emergent influence (even when I’ve been the target of its critique), I’m far from disappointed with what it has become.

Mostly, I’m just grateful.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Some Burning Coals For Us

The story below put tears in my eyes.

Over the last month I've been engaged in several (at times) heated discussions, covering topics from faith and patriotism to the role of denominations in the ordination of ministers (see the posts below). The point, at least for me, is that those issues can easily represent a great 'missing of the point' for those of us who call ourselves Christians.

Those topics, which generate so much heat in our public and private discussions, miss the point because they rarely lead to any meaningful improvement in the ways we share the faith with people in or out of the church.

That's too bad.

One of the threads that keeps me identified as a 'card-carrying evangelical' is the priority we're supposed to place on drawing new believers into the fold. Isn't that what we're all about? And if that's the case, then isn't any topic/argument/action that doesn't contribute to the accomplishing of that priority an exercise in missing the point?

Now I'm not naive. I know that the story below fits into the 'man-bites-dog' category, which is why it made the news. But there's a twinge in me that wishes that more Christians would behave this way toward their enemies, not for the headlines but so that more people would be drawn to faith in Jesus (see above).

This news item made me revisit Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that parable wasn't simply that one guy helped another, but rather that a guy who was hated and marginalized by Jesus' audience helped another. Keep that in mind as you read what follows.

In Proverbs we see a strange phrase, one that is quoted later in Paul's Letter to the Romans :

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

The point of this text is that when we respond in a way that goes against people's expectations, with radical generosity, we can make them rethink how they see us and what we believe.

Take a moment to read the story. See it as a dare to act in a radical way to reach out to those we might have a right to avoid or reject. See it as an example of how to behave, courtesy of someone who represents a group that many of us would rather hate or marginalize.

Look out for the hot coals.

I look forward to your comments.

By FRANK ELTMAN, Associated Press Writer

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. – A rifle-toting convenience store owner said he decided to show mercy on a would-be robber after seeing the man collapse into tears and claim he was only committing the crime to support his starving family.

The Long Island store owner provided the bat-wielding man with $40 and a loaf of bread and made him promise never to rob again.

"This was a grown man, crying like a baby," Mohammad Sohail, owner of the Shirley Express convenience store about 65 miles east of New York City, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

The man dropped the bat, picked up the bread and tucked the $40 into his waistband before fleeing, said Suffolk County police Sgt. John Best.

Sohail, who moved to the United States from Pakistan about 20 years ago, said he was getting ready to close his store shortly after midnight on May 21 when the man in his 40s entered with a bat in his hand. Sohail said he tried to stall for a moment and then grabbed a rifle he keeps behind the counter and ordered the assailant to drop the bat.

The would-be thief dropped to his knees and begged for forgiveness, Sohail said.

"He started crying that he was out of work and was trying to feed his hungry family," he said. "I felt bad for him. I mean, this wasn't some kid."

He said he tossed $40 to the man, who then stood up and told Sohail he was inspired by the act of mercy and wanted to become a fellow Muslim. Sohail said he led the man in a profession of Muslim faith and the two ended up shaking hands.

Sohail said he went to the back of the store to get some milk to give to the man, but when he returned the man had fled. He said he called police and reported the attempted robbery, but he doesn't want to press charges if the man is ever caught.

Best said detectives have reviewed a store surveillance video of the attempted holdup, but said it would be difficult for anyone to identify the suspect because he was wearing a mask.

Sohail, who said he had never been the victim of a robbery attempt, said he didn't expect any accolades for what he had done.

"I'm a very little man. I just did a good job," said the married father of one. "I have a good feeling in my heart. I feel very good."

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost: A Brilliant Third Act

(This message was given on Pentecost Sunday at the American Church in London.)

Acts 2:1-13

There are reruns of the TV show 'Everybody Loves Raymond' that still play here in the UK. That show was funny for a lot of reasons—not least because every so often I could catch glimpses of the Italian-American side of my own family. So many of the episodes center around food—Marie, the mother-in-law, cooks amazing food and gets her identity from it, while Debra, the daughter-in-law, can’t cook as well and always feels inferior to Marie.

In one of my favorite episodes Debra begs Marie to teach her how to make meatballs. They spend the day together talking and mixing and cooking, but at the end of the day, when Debra asks Raymond to sample the food, he gags and says there’s something wrong with it. As it turns out, Marie had changed one of the labels on a jar of spice, so that Debra would never get the recipe right. She did it to protect her identity—her role in the family as the maker of food—but in the end she had to apologize.

Now I know most of you think that I spend way too much time talking about food, but something wonderful can happen when all the right components are put together in a meal. Something truly memorable can happen when that final ingredient is added to the mix—the one that makes everything just right—just as it was meant to be.

We’re going to see something like that in our text today.

1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11(both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
13Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine.

What a great picture that is. The disciples and other followers are all together when a storm blows through the place. All of a sudden they can speak languages they didn’t know, and people around them could understand them. I especially love the way the text ends: ‘Amazed and perplexed they asked one another “What does this mean?”’ The people around them had an answer: They thought the Christians were drunk—that they’d partied a little too hard that night.

We spent the last few weeks looking at the appearances of Jesus after Holy Week—after the crucifixion and resurrection. It’s those appearances, and the way they’re written about and understood in the Scriptures, that make up the basis for our faith—for our hope that Christ really is who he said he is, and that he can do what he said he would do.

We’ve also been trying to get some perspective on just exactly what the Atonement means for us. The Atonement is the theological term for what God has done to bring us back to him. During the run up to Easter we talked about how Christ’s atoning work offers healing for all of our relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other and with the earth. This is crucially important stuff for us to wrestle with as we grow in our faith as disciples of Jesus.

I’ve been describing the Atonement as a drama that happens in three acts: the Cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the Cross, a price is paid for the sin and brokenness in all of our lives. The resurrection—the Easter miracle—demonstrates that God has power over all things, even death. And the gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s way of inspiring and empowering each of us to be the people he made us to be in the first place.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is something like the final ingredient in God’s plan for the church. He’s called it, redeemed it, demonstrated his power to give it confidence, and now he’s made good on his promise to come and make the community of faith into what it was meant to be—to complete the recipe for his church.

We’ve been talking about Jesus ministry and especially the Cross as the first act of the Atonement story. In dramatic terms, The first act is used to establish the main characters, their relationships and the normal world they live in. Early in the first act some incident occurs that confronts the main character, whose attempts to deal with this incident leads to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point, which signals the end of the first act, ensures life will never be the same again for the protagonist and raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action: How will the character respond to this new turn of events?

If we see the resurrection as the second act, listen to how that’s described in dramatic terms. The second act, also referred to as "rising action" (perfect!), typically depicts the protagonist's attempt to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point. They must not only learn new skills but arrive at a higher sense of awareness of who they are and what they are capable of, in order to deal with their predicament. This cannot be achieved alone and they are usually aided and abetted by mentors and co-protagonists.

Finally, the third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. The climax, also known as the second turning point, is the scene or sequence in which the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question answered, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are.

Thinking about the Atonement as a three-act drama is helpful here, especially now that we’ve gotten to the final act. In dramatic terms, the gift of the Holy Spirit gives us resolution of the story and its subplots. It ensures that the main dramatic question is answered. And finally, Pentecost leaves the protagonist and other characters—that’s us, by the way—with a new sense of who we really are

When the Holy Spirit enters the picture and becomes the main driver of the church, the church’s story finds its resolution and its purpose. It’s with the gift of the Spirit that we see the whole story at least a little more clearly, and the plots and subplots start to make sense.

The Spirit also answers that main dramatic question: Why did all of this happen? As we grow and learn and serve together we see how the three parts of the Atonement drama accomplish God’s plan of bringing us back to him.

And finally, in keeping with the classic three-act dramatic form, Pentecost leaves us with a new sense of who we are. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms us into the people we were meant to be all along, both individually and even more profoundly as a community of faith. The gift of the Spirit is more than just the introduction of some strange languages into the mix. It’s the ingredient that gets into us and completes us for the task of being Christ’s disciples and Christ’s church. That’s what we celebrate at Pentecost.

This year the BBC is celebrating English poets and poetry—the slogan for the series is ‘Let Poetry into Your Life.’ As a recovering literature major I was compelled to watch Simon Schama’s amazing journey through the poetry of John Donne. I completed my senior seminar at UCLA on the religious poetry of Donne, and have read him ever since.

At the beginning of the hour, Schama was walking the streets of London and asking people if they knew who Donne was, and it was sad to see how many people said they had never heard of him. The reviewer in the Guardian the next day complained that people had lost the sense ‘that this is the sort of thing we ought to lie about.’

Donne was known for writing some of the truly great carnal poetry in the history of the English language. In his seduction poem ‘The Flea’ he basically says to his partner: Since that flea has bitten us both, our blood is already mixed. (You can see where this is going.) We might as well finish the job. In the poem ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ he’s not above begging. He says: ‘Licence my roving hands, and let them go’ Try some of Donne’s poetry at home—he doesn’t disappoint.

But Donne was a passionate Christian, too. When he became the Dean of St Paul’s here in London he took those hot-blooded images into the sermons and Christian poetry he wrote during the rest of his life. In one of his Holy Sonnets he says to God:

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The BBC has it right this time. We could all stand to let a little poetry into our lives.

I suppose the call to each one of us at Pentecost is to ‘let the Holy Spirit into our lives’. Just as poetry is supposed to get into our hearts and minds in a way that other forms of language can never do, the Holy Spirit calls us and transforms us in a way that nothing else ever could.

Think back on all the claims we made about the Holy Spirit in our creed today.

We confessed our belief that the Holy Spirit,
justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the church.

That the same Spirit
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.

We admitted today that we believe the Holy Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

Maybe if we were to go out and share that message about the Holy Spirit our neighbors would think we were drunk, too.

So what?

What do we care if people misunderstand what our faith is about, at least at first—even when we struggle with it? The point for us at Pentecost is to remember that the Holy Spirit completes the Atonement process perfectly and decisively. That the Holy Spirit functions as that last ingredient that makes the rest of the meal taste exactly as it should.

The Holy Spirit comes and makes all of us, both individually and as a community of faith—the Spirit makes all of us into the people we were meant to be all along. People who share their faith whether they talk about it or not, with every person they meet—at home, in the workplace, on the bus, and in this church.

Listen to how John Donne preached this at St Paul’s on Pentecost Sunday in 1628. I’ve updated the language a little but here’s what he said:

The Holy Spirit is poured into you, if he has made any entry, if he has taken hold of any corrupt affection in your life. But if the Spirit is poured in, he can also be poured out of you. Just as wine is poured into a glass and fills it from top to bottom, the Spirit fills you and covers every part of you.

When we are filled, the Spirit then overflows to the benefit of those around us. Receive, then, the Holy Spirit, so that it can overflow from your example to the edification of others.

That you may go home and say to your children: receive the Spirit in contentment and thankfulness.

You can say to your employees: receive the Spirit with integrity and a sense of duty.

You can say to your neighbors: receive the Holy Spirit in the name of peace and quiet.

To those you owe money to you can say: receive the Spirit with patience and tenderness and compassion.

To those who owe you money: receive the Spirit for your resourcefulness and hard work.

You see, preaching itself is useless if the Holy Spirit is not in the midst of it. And if the Spirit is in the midst of it, we all become like the apostles, called to be fishers of men, people who take part in God’s plan to redeem the world.

We do this by the best preaching there is,
Donne said, an exemplary life and holy conversation.

Isn’t that wonderful? Donne pretty much gets the last word here. Not much to add to that, except this: We offer this final hymn today as a prayer that the Holy Spirit might pour out of us in every relationship—every place we live and work and go—to the glory of God alone.


Let's stand and sing together: ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing'