Monday, September 28, 2009

Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

(This message is part of a series on Romans titled "Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose.")

Romans 1:16-17

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

We’re at the beginning of a journey through parts of Paul’s letter to the Christians in 1st-century Rome. As I said last week, there are a few things for us to know as we try to understand this complicated letter.

The Roman church was really a network of homes and converted synagogues where people gathered to worship and learn and serve in Christ’s name. Remember that there were more than 50,000 Jews in Rome at that time, and that a significant number of them had converted to Christianity and were worshipping side-by-side with Gentile Christians from Rome and other parts of the Empire.

Paul was the ideal person to write this pastoral letter. Paul had been a devout Jew for most of his life. He was trained as a Pharisee under the most famous Pharisee scholar of them all, a man named Gamaliel, which I said last week was the equivalent of getting an Ivy League PhD in Jewish law. Saul calls himself a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’, and even leads some of the early persecution of the Christian church.

But Saul becomes Paul when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, and everything changes for him. He takes his academic training, his ability to earn and raise money, and his passionate faith in Jesus Christ—he takes all of those into his new job—his new calling as one of the founders of the Christian church. It’s in that new role that Paul writes this crucial letter.

And so what was the point of Paul’s letter to the Romans?

Romans was written to convince one group of people that God could be trusted because of his faithfulness to another group of people.

Let me say that another way:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people.

It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

Simple, right?

It’s not really simple at all, but as we make our way through our text this morning, there are some things to notice about what Paul is teaching here.

First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in the promises God made to the Jewish people.

Paul says in our text that the Gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,” and the text ends with a quote from the prophet Habakkuk: “The righteous will live by faith.” Even in this short passage Paul is making the link between the Gospel of Jesus and the history of God’s relationship with the Jewish people.

Second, that Gospel, wherever it came from, is available to all people.

The Gospel is God’s “salvation for everyone who believes.” This is a key part of Paul’s ministry, and it also shapes the early history of the church. The Christian faith was born out of Judaism, but it was meant for everyone. Remember the promises we read last week and this morning that God made to Abram—that he would make him into a great nation with more descendants than he could count. All of that was meant for a purpose: “…and all the nations will be blessed through you.”

It’s the ministry of Jesus that becomes that blessing—it’s a blessing that comes through Jesus—through Judaism—and offers God’s redemption and reconciliation to the whole world

Finally we experience the full gift of the Gospel by faith alone.

“For in the Gospel a righteousness is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”

This is a tricky one, because it’s in this single sentence that Paul is trying to change the entire world view of his Jewish convert readers. They would have believed from birth that “righteousness”—being reconciled to God, came from following the Law and offering the right sacrifices. Here Paul is saying that the gift of connection to God is just that. It’s a gift that comes by faith alone, and not by anything we can do to earn it.

It’s this theme that pushed Martin Luther into the movement that became the Reformation. So many things had been added by the church to the list of what people had to do to draw near to God. So many layers of religious stuff had been placed between the individual believer and God. When Luther read Paul’s letter to the Romans with fresh eyes, he learned that God had cleared out all of those obstructions—when Luther realized that what God wanted was for people to come to him by faith alone, it changed everything.

In the Jewish tradition tomorrow is Yom Kippur. It’s a day of solemn reflection and confession for sins against God and against other people—it’s also a day of repentance for both individual and corporate sins. The purpose of the day is to be cleansed—to be released from the guilt and shame that come from those things we do that separate us from God (not God from us, by the way).

The message of Romans, and the point that Paul is trying to communicate to his Gentile readers and Jewish converts at the same time, is that we’re not driven or controlled anymore by our guilt and shame. Because God has been faithful to his promises, we can come to him by faith alone.

But that doesn’t mean that ‘shame’ isn’t a real part of our lives.

John Bradshaw is a psychologist who specializes in dealing with the impact of shame on individuals and families. He wrote: “To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is somehow flawed—that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it becomes toxic and dehumanizing.” That’s what the Gospel is designed to transform in our lives—that feeling of being not quite fully human because of our sin and shame.

That brings us back to Paul’s bold claim: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” What was he saying?

Paul was making the point that he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel, because the point of the Gospel was to take away his shame. But mostly he’s saying that as strange as this story sounds, he knew that it was rooted in the history and promises and character of God himself, so there was no need to be embarrassed about it.

Paul said to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

What does that mean for us? The first two things we’ve said already:

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in God’s promises and relationship with Israel.

The Gospel is available to all people.

But there’s more.

The Gospel is something we grasp through faith, not science, not blind leap, but through our struggle to trust the God who has demonstrated his trustworthiness through the Cross and Resurrection.

As we grasp the Gospel we find that it takes away the shame we carry with us in our lives. That’s part of the point. As hard as it might be for us to fully comprehend, the Gospel restores us and remakes us into the people that God made us to be in the first place. Part of that process is helping us to acknowledge our sin and ask for forgiveness. The rest of that process is like a deep cleansing that the Scriptures tell us will make us ‘whiter than snow.’

Mostly this text is a reminder that just as he did with Paul, God invites us to stop being ashamed of the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in history and available to everyone. It has the power to build community and spark reconciliation and give hope to every single person on earth.

But mostly we stop being ashamed of the Gospel when we accept the fact that the Gospel isn’t ashamed of us.

No matter what we done or said or thought or believed in the past, the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ has come and lived and served and died and rose again—that Gospel takes us where we are, it cleanses us and restores us, and in the end it makes all things new.

When Yom Kippur was celebrated in the ancient world, it was the only day of the year when the high priest would enter the ‘Holy of Holies,’ the most important room in the Temple at Jerusalem. The gift of the gospel—the reason we’re all here today—is that through Jesus Christ we can approach God wherever we are and whenever we want. The call on us to come in faith, to trust in God’s promises, and to share that message with a hungry world.

That desire to share the message of the Gospel is what’s behind our closing hymn today. When Charles Wesley would have one of those moments where he realized the depth of God’s love for him, he would wish for a thousand voices to offer his love and praises to God.

Let’s stand together and ask for the same thing: “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Based on a Promise, Called for a Purpose

Romans 1:1-7

An atheist was walking through the woods one day, admiring the nature around him. "What majestic trees! What a powerful river! What beautiful animals!" he said to himself.

As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. Turning to look, he saw a 13-foot Kodiak brown bear beginning to charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could down the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the bear was rapidly closing on him. Somehow, he ran even faster, so scared that tears came to his eyes. He looked again and the bear was even closer. His heart pounding in his chest, he tried to run faster yet.

But alas, he tripped and fell to the ground. As he rolled over to pick himself up, the bear was right over him, reaching for him with its left paw and raising its right paw to strike him.


Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. Even the river stopped moving ... A brilliant light shone upon the man, a thunderous voice came from all around...


Difficult as it was, the atheist looked directly into the light and said, "It would be hypocritical to ask to be a Christian after all these years, but perhaps you could make the bear a Christian?"

"VERY WELL." Said God.

The light went out. The river ran. The sounds of the forest resumed.

... and the bear dropped down on his knees, brought both paws together, bowed his head and spoke: "Lord, thank you for this food which I am about to receive."

That story has absolutely nothing to do with today’s message, but it was too good to pass up. In any case it’s a good reminder that it’s OK—maybe even recommended—to be very specific in our prayers…

Today we begin an exploration through Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s the longest and most complicated of Paul’s letters, but it’s also very important for our understanding of who we are and whose we are as Christian people—as a Christian church.

Our text this morning is Romans 1:1-7.

1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

7To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now Romans has a bad reputation. As books of the Bible go it has the reputation for being hard—for being too complicated—for being difficult to understand. Here’s a news flash: The reputation is true. Romans is a hard book to read. It’s long, which makes it hard to read in one sitting like you can with the other letters of Paul. But it’s not just its length. Think about what you’re trying to understand in reading this letter. This book of the Bible was written 2000 years ago by a converted Jew who was trained as a Pharisee. He was writing it to a city he hadn’t visited before, and trying to convince them that something that happened in one of the backwaters of the Roman Empire could offer them salvation from a God they were just getting to know.

Of course this letter is hard to read. But still, everyone has their favorite Romans verse, right?

Romans 1:16
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 8:28
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:38-39
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 12:1-2
Therefore I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Everyone has their favorite passage from Romans. I want to say very clearly as we get started here that these favorite passages, when you take them individually, can get in the way of understanding what this letter is all about.

The point of the letter is in our text, but it’s also rooted in the covenant promises that God made (and kept) to the Jewish people. (See Genesis 12:1-3 here)

Let’s put the letter into context.

The Apostle Paul is one of the central figures of the early church. He was born into the Jewish faith and trained as a Pharisee. We think of the Pharisees as the villains in most of the stories about Jesus in the gospels, but that’s not completely fair. The Pharisees were scholars whose job it was to make sure that people of faith followed the Hebrew laws to the very letter. They believed—they were people of deep faith who took their responsibility very seriously. But that’s what got them on the bad side of Jesus—too much law and not enough heart.

Paul, who starts out as Saul form a place called Tarsus, trained under a famous Pharisee scholar named Gamaliel, which is the equivalent of getting an Ivy League PhD in Jewish law. Saul calls himself a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’, and even leads some of the early persecution of the Christian church. But that’s only the beginning of his story. Saul meets Jesus in a miraculous vision on his way to Damascus. Jesus changes his name to Paul, and calls him to be the one who shares the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.

Most of Paul’s letters were written within 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Paul is brilliant, blunt, abrasive, tender, and fearless—we’ll see all of those qualities as we move through his letter to the Romans.

Paul’s letter was written to the new Christian church in Rome. It was mostly Gentile but it had a strong core of Jewish converts. There were 50,000 Jews in Rome in the 1st century, and many of them converted to the Christian faith. Many of the early Christian churches in Rome were actually converted synagogues, so there was a deep sense of connection between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.

This letter was written in the year 55AD—fairly early in the history of Christianity. Remember that the Christian movement was still being persecuted at this point, and it would get worse as the church grew.

It makes sense then that the point of the letter would have something to do with both Jews and Gentiles, since both were involved in the Roman church.

And so what was the point of Paul’s letter to the Romans?

Romans was written to convince one group of people that God could be trusted because of his faithfulness to another group of people.

Let me say that another way:

The letter to the Romans was written to convince the Gentile Christians in Rome that God could be trusted because he kept his promises to his Jewish covenant people. It was also a reminder to the Jewish people that they hadn’t left their old faith behind for a new one, but that Christ was the completion of the faith they’d held all along.

Keep that in mind not only today but also through this entire series. Paul is making a case—he’s making an argument to the most influential city in the world—and it centers on God’s faithfulness to his promises to the Jewish people.

Let’s look at our text.

Notice in the second verse that Paul refers to the ‘gospel promised beforehand through the prophets and Holy Scriptures.’ That’s a clear indication that we’re supposed to see the life and ministry of Jesus in light of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Just a point of logical detail here, but the ‘Holy Scripture’ Paul mentions here is the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—since he’s writing before the New Testament is circulating. The real point, though, is that the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—is rooted in the promises of the Jewish tradition.

We should also pay attention to the central role of the resurrection in Paul’s argument. It’s the resurrection of Jesus that proves God is faithful to his promise to bless everyone, Jew and Gentile and everyone in between. It’s the resurrection that Paul uses as proof that God can be trusted at his word.

All of this is built on a foundation of God’s grace: ‘Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from everywhere to faith.’ Grace is central to our understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Grace takes on all kinds of different shapes. This past week there was a story about a guy who had been a season ticket holder with the Philadelphia Phillies (that’s an American baseball team, by the way) for years, but he’d never caught a foul ball. The other night a ball came his way and he made a great catch. The whole thing was caught on one of the TV cameras and the whole stadium was watching him. He celebrated with his friends and the fans around him, then gave the ball to his 3-year-old daughter. She smiled and threw the ball back onto the field.

The stadium went silent for a moment, and then the dad scooped up his daughter and gave her a huge hug. The stadium went crazy—the dad ended up on morning talk shows and becoming a local celebrity. When he was asked why he reacted the way he did, he said: “I didn’t want her to feel bad—I wanted her to know she was more important than the ball.”

Someday that little girl will realize what she did that day, but what she’ll really remember is that her father loved her anyway.

I posted that story on my Facebook page this past week, and one of Julie’s old friends commented that ‘that’s an example of parenting as it should be.’

She’s right. The dad in that story is an example of parenting with grace, and that’s the point Paul is making about God here. Through Christ we’re given the gift of grace from God himself, no matter what we’ve done, and it’s that grace that empowers us and gives us strength for the journey.

It’s through Christ that we get reminded that no matter what we’ve done, our father loves us anyway.

What does all of this mean for us?

Paul’s letter to the Romans, with all its theology and teaching and challenge and history—this letter is as much to us in this time and place as it was to the 1st-century Romans. The case that Paul was making to the Romans is the same case we all need to hear and share right now if we’re going to grow into the people he made us to be in the first place.

There are two main points for us to remember as we read this letter and as we seek to be Christ’s disciples in the world.

First, our trust in God is based on a promise. We believe and have hope because God has shown us over and over again that he can be trusted—that he’ll keep his word—that in the end he’ll “make all things new.” None of that means our lives are guaranteed to be rosy, by the way. God’s faithfulness doesn’t always equal an easy life for us. But the point of the resurrection—the reason Jesus Christ was risen from the dead was to prove that the reign of God extended even to the things we fear the most—that God’s Kingdom ruled over all people and all places and everything else, even death.

God has been and will be faithful, but that’s not the end of the story.

The second point for us to remember is this: In response to God’s faithfulness to his promises, we have been called for a purpose. Paul identifies himself in our text as a ‘servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.’

The same is true about us. Christ calls each one of us to serve him in some way—somehow each of us has some gift or talent to share with the whole body of Christ to make us whole—to make us better. We’re called to be apostles wherever we are—ambassadors of the message that God is faithful, that he keeps his promises, and that he loves all of his creation. Paul the apostle had to start the church. The call on us is to grow it and extend it to the ends of the earth.

Finally, we’re set apart for the gospel of God—set apart to be agents of the Good News in every situation. Now that’s a project that really doesn’t have an end to it—we never really accomplish it or complete it. It doesn’t have an end, but it needs to have a beginning and a middle. To be set apart is to hear the call to live differently—to love and earn and spend and serve in a new way because of what Christ has done for us.

That’s the point of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Our faith in Jesus Christ is based on the promise that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he said he would do. Because of that we’re called to a purpose: to share that good news with anyone who will listen.

This letter is to the Roman church, but we’re going to see that it could just as easily be addressed to the churches in London. Hear the last verse of our text in a new way:

“To all in London who are loved by God and called to be saints. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

Because the resurrection is so central to this letter, and because we suddenly like to sing our hymns out of season, let’s stand and sing together one of the great Easter hymns—“Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Welcome Back Sunday: Where the Heart Is

(The following is a part of my message from Welcome Back Sunday. The reflection on 9/11 is just below this post.)

John 14:23

This is our season of homesickness. Some of you have just moved here, while others have been here for a while and have just returned from visiting family and friends. That’s where Julie and I are right now. We miss our daughter, our parents and siblings, and the cousins that I an played with while we were back in California. It’s a season of homesickness. Many of us are here today missing places where we feel loved—places where many of the people we love still are. That’s really the essence of homesickness, isn’t it? Missing the places where we love and feel loved.

But it’s not just people and houses that define home for us. There are all kinds of things that we miss when we feel homesick. That gives me a good opportunity to share with you one of my most deeply held beliefs.

It’s something I learned from my grandfather as a child and was reinforced in my relationships at home and at church in my teens.

It’s something that grew in me during my college and seminary years.

It’s my firm and passionate belief that in almost every way that matters, baseball is superior to football. Now I know that football season just started, but that doesn’t change what I believe. I miss baseball, can you tell?

I’m not alone in this. One of the great philosophers of the 20th century agrees with me on the superiority of God’s game, er, baseball over football. Of course I’m talking about George Carlin. Listen to how he describes it:

Football is played on a gridiron. Baseball is played in a park.
Football players wear helmets. Baseball players wear caps.
In football the specialist comes in to kick something. In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.
Baseball has the 7th-inning stretch. Football has the 2-minute warning.
Baseball gets extra innings. Football has sudden death.
In football the runner gives you the stiff arm. In baseball the runner gets to slide.

But the biggest difference is that in football the main objective is military: The battle is fought in the trenches, the field general (you know him as the quarterback) seeks to evade the blitz and soften up the enemy line with a pounding ground attack and aerial bombardment. Sometimes he uses bullet passes; when he thinks it will work, he goes for a bomb to riddle the enemy defenses and penetrate the end zone.

In baseball, the object is to go home.

See what I mean? There’s no arguing with George Carlin on this one.

23Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

John’s gospel is a unique book in the New Testament. The other three gospels can be grouped together because they follow the same patterns and tell the same stories, but John is different. He covers a lot of the same events—and a few that aren’t in the other three books—but he tells those stories differently. He uses images like ‘word’ and ‘light’ and ‘life’ that make it easier to understand who Jesus is and what he was trying to do.

John’s gospel is the one we give to new Christians, because it gives people a great foundation for getting to know Christ in a meaningful way. If you’ve never read it from start to finish, or haven’t in a long time, I’d recommend it to you.

Chapter 14 of John’s gospel is the beginning of the ‘Farewell Discourses,’ a series of teachings and prayers to help the disciples learn to live and serve without Jesus being physically present with them.

The chapter starts with some familiar passages: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…in my father’s house there are many rooms, or mansions,’ followed by a promise to go and prepare a place for his followers. By the time we get to our text in verse 23, Jesus is still talking about the idea of ‘home.’

There’s a little bit of profiling going on in our text. Listen to what Jesus says: ‘You’ll recognize the one who loves me because she’ll obey my teaching.’

Now Jesus isn’t saying that ‘if we’ll do A, then B will happen—that if we love him then God will love us in return’ He’s giving the profile of what a Christian really looks and sounds and acts like: You can recognize the people who love me—they’re the ones living out my teachings.

That’s a big part of what we want to do together in this church over the coming year. To focus on the teachings of Jesus and the way they’re interpreted and explained in the Scriptures is a big part of what we’re all about in this place.

Just looking back on the last year together, we’ve walked through a lot of what Jesus had to say. We spent last fall on the Lord’s Prayer, and how those words of Jesus teach not only how to pray, but how to live.

During Advent last year we talked about Christmas Gifts You Can Use: the way Jesus inspires Faith and Joy and Love and Hope for the world.

During Lent this year we talked about the meaning of the Atonement, of Christ’s sacrifice for all of us. And from there we explored the Resurrection and what it means for us, and then Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and how it transforms our lives individually and as a church.

This past summer we enjoyed the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Starting next week we’re going to begin a journey through Paul’s Letter to the Romans—a letter he wrote to explain what faith in Christ means for people in the most influential city of the day. Because there’s a message for London in this letter to Rome.

Learning the teachings of Jesus—and learning to obey those teachings—is the road map for growth as a Christian disciple.

All of that’s important, but what I really love is the next part of the text. The promise in our passage goes like this: God promises to make his home with the people who love him.

To put that another way, the promise to everyone on the journey of faith is not just that we’ll live with God somewhere, somehow in the future. The promise is that he’ll come and live with us and redefine what home means to us right now.

This past week we remembered the tragedy of 9/11. There was an essay in the Guardian by a writer who described a pair of shoes he keeps in a cupboard in his office. They belonged to his father. They’re scuffed and scratched—they’re covered in dust and sealed in a plastic bag.

The writer’s father had been in one of the twin towers, on the 59th floor, and had survived by making the long walk down the stairs to the street. When he got out of the building, he started walking, and he walked all the way to his family’s home on 71st Street.

The writer can’t make himself get rid of those shoes, or even to store them in a place where he won’t see them as often. The shoes are a part of what saved his father. The shoes are what brought his father home.

That leaves us with a few questions as we reflect on our text today.

What is it that rescues you from the disasters in your own life?

What is it that reminds you that you’re safe and secure and loved?

What is it that brings you to the place where you feel at home?

As a recovering English major there’s a little voice in the back of my head that reminds me that every new paragraph—every new section—every new year begins with a topic sentence. I’ve been thinking about what that sentence should be for us, and here it is:

Jesus Christ is the one who defines what ‘home’ really means for us.

In this church—among this diverse group of people from Britain and America and all over the world. In this place we believe that Jesus Christ offers the true comforts of home to every person. We find out what that means as we learn his teachings, as we become obedient to what those teachings call us to do, and as we grow into mature disciples of the one who made us, redeems us, and calls us into his family.

If you’ve been coming to this church for a while now, then welcome back.

If you’re here for the first time or new to London or just getting started with us—if you’ve come here this morning feeling more than a little homesick, then welcome. You’re among friends, and you’re in for a great year.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering and Shaking Free from Memory

It's an awful sort of anniversary.

I've been reading posts today about where people were and what they were doing when the attacks came. My East Coast friends were on their way to work, people near where I lived in Southern California were mostly waking up to the deed already done, and folks here in the UK were at lunch. Everyone remembers. Everyone does something different with their memories.

Some have come to see the world as a far more complicated place than they thought it was. No one can fully grasp the full array of ethnicities and religions and cultures around the world, but most know more than they did on 9/11. Some have devoted themselves to seeking common ground with those who committed (and supported) the attacks, as if conversation alone would prevent fanatics from being, well, fanatics.

Others have allowed their memories of that day to make them hard and angry and defensive. Many of these people were like that before, which really points to an odd sort of resistance to the impact of the attacks: they really weren't changed by them at all. But there are many who evolved into a reactive form of fearful bitterness, and it's those people who grieve me the most.

Because in my little corner of the world, most of my close friends and family are Christians. Not only that, but many of us would identify ourselves (with varying degrees of volume) as evangelicals--people who believe that Jesus Christ died to redeem the world, and that it is every believer's task to share that message. That specific description of our faith and ethics is important, because I fear that it has become yet another casualty of the terrorist attacks eight years ago.

There is a disconnect these days between the faith we assent to and the decisions we make. I suppose that's always been true: Christian history is dotted with decisions and events that seem to go directly against the doctrinal and ethical beliefs of the faith. But I can't do anything about the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials or slavery. What I'm talking about, in the historically disciplined words of Pete Townsend, is my generation.

My generation of evangelicals has allowed the attacks of 9/11 to separate their faith from how they interact ethically and politically.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer a case in point. Now I'm not much of a pacifist, but I do recognize the inherent theological challenge of violent action for the Christian. It's John Calvin's 500th birthday this year, so let's give him an opportunity to weigh in. After making a solid case for a government's responsibility to provide for national defense, he says this:

But it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity.

Calvin continues with what I believe to be the point in all of this:

Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing.

That's the part we evangelicals too often seem to have lost. True evangelicalism is driven by compassion for people who haven't yet experienced the forgiveness and restoration that comes from Christ alone. True Christianity is marked by the compassion demonstrated by Jesus himself in his earthly ministry: sacrificial, redemptive, and available to all. True Christian discipleship leads us inevitably to the awareness of our own redeemed depravity, and teaches us to humbly acknowledge what we have in common with our enemy.

Not much of that is working its way into public discourse about the wars we're fighting, which is catastrophically disappointing to me for a country that enjoys the myth of being built on Christian principles.

Which brings me (strangely) to the current debate over creating a public health service in the US. I'm glad the debate is taking place. It's long overdue, and I believe there are important philosophical questions to be asked about the role of government in the lives of individuals. I believe that to be true, and yet the people disappointing me the most are my evangelical Christian brothers and sisters. Few that I have heard, even if they have perfectly valid objections to the expansion of social programs, have articulated a Christian response either to the problem or to the proposed solution.

Most of the people I have in mind have a sort of hero-worshipping relationship to Winston Churchill. They admire, as I do, his courage and tenacity and his strong leadership in a time of war. Most will be shocked to learn that he gave strong, early support to the formation of the National Health Service. Listen to what he said in 1944:

The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion. Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.

I'll pause to let that sink in.

Most will be even more surprised to learn that after the NHS was established by a postwar socialist government, Churchill returned to power and had the opportunity to close the entire thing down. Even under pressure from his own Conservative party, he refused to do it.

I think we could learn a lot from the later views of Winston Churchill. The Second World War was far more devastating than the 9/11 attacks, and it was far more traumatic in the UK than in the US. And yet, on the other side of that horrible event, with most of his cities still in bombed-out rubble, Churchill came out more compassionate, more sacrificial, more willing to make sure his neighbor was taken care of.

I know I've read those principles somewhere before.

It's an awful sort of anniversary, but maybe there's still time to redeem something from it. There is an enormous amount of room for debate on the issues that confront us these days, but I have little patience for Christian people who refuse to wrestle with Christian principles in those debates. To call Jesus your Savior without acknowledging your enemy's need of salvation is a sin. To enjoy the benefits of Christ's sacrifice without being willing to sacrifice in turn for your neighbor is a scandal.

On this awful anniversary my prayer is that we'll resist the temptation to use the memory of 9/11 to fuel our bitterness and anger and fear. My prayer is that we'll take this day to pray that God would soften our hearts, sharpen our minds, and make us into more mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Comings and Goings

(The following is part of a message given at the American Church in London this past Sunday, as we said goodbye to Kate Obermueller.)

Judges 18:1-6

1 In those days Israel had no king. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. 2 So the Danites sent five warriors from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all their clans. They told them, "Go, explore the land." The men entered the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah, where they spent the night. 3 When they were near Micah's house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they turned in there and asked him, "Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? Why are you here?"

4 He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, "He has hired me and I am his priest."

5 Then they said to him, "Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful."

6 The priest answered them, "Go in peace. Your journey has the LORD's approval."

The Book of Judges covers the period between Joshua and King Saul—between the wars fought over entering the Promised Land and the establishment of the Nation of Israel. You might recognize some of the names of the judges: Gideon, Deborah, and Samson.

It was a tough time, but the judges helped by governing and organizing the 12 tribes into one nation. At times they all wondered if the journey and the conflict and the moving around were worth it. In our passage one the leaders is trying find out if his efforts fit in with God’s plan for his people.

You heard the response: ‘Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord’s approval.’

What a great thing to hear.

After more than 20 years in different kinds of ministry, among all the things that people ask me, there’s one question that comes up more than all the rest.

It’s some variation of: How do I know where God wants me to be?

Now some people have more basic questions about who God is and if he really exists. But for those who have made a commitment to be followers of Jesus Christ—people who want their lives to reflect their faith in a meaningful way—questions about how to determine God’s leading–God’s plan for our lives—is the one we ask the most.

How do I know where God wants me to be?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How can we as a congregation know where God wants us to be?

One of the movies I watched on the plane this summer was the new Star Trek. It’s sort of prequel—it tells the story of how Jim Kirk and Spock and Bones McCoy met before we saw them on TV in the 60s. Capt. Kirk earned his reputation by changing the rules of a leadership test so that he could survive a no-win situation.

I try to do the same thing when people ask me how they should figure out where God wants them to be. I’ll never give a straight answer to that kind of question. Partly I do it because answering the question for someone else is a no-win proposition. But I also do it because I’ve never really had a lightning-bolt experience before. No voice from heaven or burning bush has ever really helped be make a life choice. To be honest, the closest I’ve ever experienced to that was the call to come here, to this church, to make the move from California to London to be your pastor.

When people come to me with the ‘How do I know where God wants me to be?’ question, my goal is usually to reframe the question into something slightly different. The important question for us isn’t as much where we’re supposed to live as it is how we’re supposed to live. We spend an enormous amount of time waiting to hear from God about where we should go and what we should do. But it’s what we do in that wherever we are that can make all the difference.

Because being God’s faithful disciples is less about where we should be, and more about how we should be wherever we are.

To put it in other words: It’s not ‘Where does God want me to be?, but rather ‘What does God want me to be like?’

When we frame the question that way we can see some tangible answers for ourselves.

We know we’re called to pray and to worship, to study and to serve. The Bible is pretty clear that we’re supposed to work for justice and to forgive each other—that we should share our own stories of faith with the people we encounter in our daily lives. There are all kinds of answers to the ‘What does God want me to be like’ question.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to discern where God wants us to be. There’s still something important about listening for God’s call to a new place—something critical for each of us about hearing that call and acting on it at different times in our lives.

That’s what we’re celebrating today as we say goodbye to Kate. I have a very clear memory of our first conversation on the phone back in 2007. We talked about life and ministry and food and movies—the really important stuff—and then she cut the call short so she could go jump out of an airplane. As the call ended I decided that if she survived that day, she might make a good assistant minister.

The last two years have confirmed Kate’s sense of call to this place—and our invitation to her—over and over again. Through children’s ministry and work with our youth groups. In the midst of relationships with the young adults and her service on Council. Kate has lived out the call on her life to serve in this place. She makes it easy to say, as we heard in our passage today: ‘Go in peace—your journey has the Lord’s approval.’

It’s with that same hope that we call Stephanie to come and serve here starting next week. The gifts and training and qualifications are all there, but the most important quality she’ll being is the same one Kate brought with her—a willingness to hear God’s call and act on it—a desire to be the person God made her to be, and to serve our young people and this church in Christ’s name.

In the end that’s what God wants from all of us, in big ways and also in those little everyday situations that tend to change the world. God calls us to be people who fellowship in true community, who worship with passion and creativity, who desire to grow in our knowledge and faith, and who will turn outward in service so that people will hear and experience the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our lives.

Next week we officially begin a new church year in this place. As we say goodbye to one friend and welcome a new one, my prayer for us is that we will offer ourselves in service to Christ and to this church—that we’ll commit individually and as a community of faith—to allow ourselves to be transformed into the people God made us to be all along.

As we come to the Table this morning, my prayer for each one of us is that we’ll listen for God’s call on our lives—whatever and wherever that may be—that we’ll hear that call and follow it with faith and humility and passion.

Let’s pray together.