Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Safe Place for All ~ 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 ~ Fourth Sunday of Epiphany ~ January 29, 2012

Most of the food at the supermarket does not come directly from the farm supermarket...
Our food passes through the various hands of what is known as “the supply chain.”  Generally, our food goes from the farm, to the packer, to the wholesaler, to the distribution center, and then to the supermarket, and finally, our homes...

In the ancient city of Corinth, there was one very common link in the supply chain—which would be very unusual in our day...  Most of the meat that was bought and sold in the Corinthian marketplace had been sacrificed to idols.  It actually went from the temples to the meat markets.  There were even restaurants in the temples that served this meat. 

For some Christians, this wasn’t a problem...  In their minds, there was only one God—and no other gods existed.  So any sacrifices or rituals to those gods were nothing but a bunch of “bogus hocus pocus...”  They were free to eat whatever they wanted—and the Apostle Paul affirmed this freedom.  This food wasn’t cursed or evil because of where it had been or what it had been used for.  Food was food, and the Christian was free to eat it. 

But for some Christians, it was a big problem to eat food sacrificed to idols...  When they saw their fellow Christians eating it, they were scandalized.  In their eyes, these Christians were behaving like idol-worshippers.  So they didn’t feel safe at church in the company these persons. 

On the other hand, those who did eat it tended to judge those who did not as being weak and ignorant.  After all, they didn’t know the truth—or they couldn’t handle the truth…

So the church was divided—and a church that’s divided is a church that is weak

But Paul’s solution to the problem was not about “enlightening” everyone into his way of doing things…  “Food will not bring us close to God,” he writes, even if it has not been sacrificed to idols. 

Paul’s greatest concern was that the Corinthian church be a safe space for all believers to come together in the presence of the living God.  And this would not be possible if some believers were scandalized by the behavior of some of their fellow Christians—nor would it be possible if some believers were judging others as weak, ignorant, or stupid for their beliefs…

All of the members of the Corinthian church were obligated to love and care for all of their sisters and brothers in Christ… After all, the greatest commandment is the commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

So if eating food sacrificed to idols was going to cause others to stumble in their faith and feel unsafe in the church—then the right thing to do was to abstain from eating it—even though people knew that was no harm in doing so… 

Eating food sacrificed to idols is not an issue of debate in today’s church.  But controversy is as old as the church itself—and our day and age is no exception.  There are many changes taking place in the church; changes in how we worship; changes in teaching and doctrine, changes in leadership—and the church is divided. 

Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing.  There will always be disagreement about matters of faith and practice.  But we go wrong when we become hostile and judgmental towards those who disagree with us…  Many judge those on the other side as being stupid or ignorant; or at worse yet, as untrue Christians… 

And the consequence of this is that people (on both sides of controversies) do not feel safe in their churches. 

And there many other reasons that people don’t feel safe in church…and thus never come…

Some people can’t get into the spirit of how congregations worship… 

Some may believe they’re too different from the people inside.  They don’t have nice clothes to wear to worship; or perhaps they believe they’re not good enough to belong; they’ve done a lot of bad things in their life and everyone in town knows their reputation… 

Some people may have a hard time believing in God with all of the bag things that have happened in their lives… 

But now, more than ever, it is vital that we work together in making our church a safe place for all people to come into the loving arms of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus never rejected anyone—so as the Body of Christ, we are called to show the unconditional love of Christ to ever sinner, every seeker, and every doubter in this community. 

And that’s not always easy for us to do…  It’s not easy to love people when they’re different from us…  It’s not easy to love those whom we know have not lived godly lives; it’s not easy to love those whose beliefs differ from our own.  And it’s especially not easy to love those who’ve offended us.  But there is no greater commandment from God than the command to love. 

Being loving is more important than being right.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Live Simply, Simply Love ~ 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ~ 3rd Sunday of Epiphany ~ January 22, 2012

Last year it was a radio evangelist Harold Camping...

This year it's the Mayans...
and Nostradamus...

...telling us that the world is going to end.
Every generation has its doomsday prophets.  For as long as time has existed, there have always been people who've believed the end of days was imminent. 

And Christianity is no exception.  From the days after Christ's resurrection until now, believers have been firmly convinced that the end of the world was to come in their lifetimes. 
The Apostle Paul was one of those Christians...  We hear this conviction in his words from our second reading in 1 Corinthians.

His message to the believers in Corinth was this: time was short.  The present order is passing away.  Therefore, everyone's plans, everyone's concerns should be set aside-- and everyone should focus on readying themselves for what was soon to come.  There was no reason to be bothered with marriage or grief or celebration or possessions...   Christ was going to come any day, and none of these things would matter... 
It goes without saying that Paul was wrong about the timing of Christ's return.  But there is still a great truth for us in his words... 

This life, and the world as we know it right now-- will not last forever. 
And thank God for that.  Thank God that our suffering isn’t permanent.  Thank God that there one day will be no more poverty or evil.  Thank God that a brighter future awaits us... 

But that's the future…
What concerns us most is the stuff of the here-and-now; the stuff that impacts our everyday life.  We're concerned for our loved ones, for our jobs, for our health…  In a presidential election year we're concerned about the economy; about healthcare and education; crime and wars; the environment.  These concerns are part of life.  We can't avoid them.  And we're not wrong to have them.  These are God’s concerns, too.

But the trouble is that this world gives us even more concerns. 
Just consider the advertisements you see on TV:

Smart phones with 4G wireless internet.  Televisions with 500 channels.  Cars you can talk to, that'll park themselves.  Designer fashion labels. Gourmet restaurants.  Luxury vacations. 
All of this advertising aims to address a need or a concern you have-- and if that need doesn't exist, they'll do whatever it takes to create it.  So while you're already concerned about your children and your health and your career, you’ll now be concerned about owning "the next big thing" (whatever that may be).  Once you’re convinced that you can’t live without it, you're next concern will be paying for it.  So now you'll be even more concerned about your job and your finances.  And once you buy that next big thing, you'll be concerned about it working properly; you’ll worry about breaking it or someone stealing it. 

With wealth and every flashy treasure, creature comforts, and modern convenience come concerns.  They cause us stress; they put the squeeze on our finances.  And from the perspective of eternity, these things are absolutely meaningless... 
Now it’s not morally wrong if we have cable or if we own the latest trendy gadgets or take nice vacations. 

We all want to live comfortably; we all want to have fun and enjoy ourselves.  And we know life is short, so we all want to live life to its fullest. 
But is it all worth it?

God’s Word reminds us again, that the good life that our souls hunger for so greatly cannot be found in this world as we know it. 
When God’s promised future comes to fulfillment, it won’t matter if we had cable television; it won’t matter if we owned the next big thing. 

The good life awaits us in eternity. 
And in Jesus Christ, that glorious future is ours.  We don’t have to go through life worrying and being concerned whether or not we are saved.  We are God’s ultimate concern—and Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice to give us the ever-lasting life we need.  We’re already well on our way to our eternal home.  So why should we lose our souls to gain a world that’s passing away?

Make no mistake; we still have to live in this world for as long as God has destined for us.  But we do not have to live life on the world’s terms.  God’s will for our lives is that we be as free from anxieties and worries and stress as we can possibly be.  And we can spare ourselves tremendous stress and anxiety just by living simply.  This is the virtue of living simply.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Don’t get caught up in the endless pursuit of the good life that will always be beyond your reach. 
The life that is truly worth living is one that is lived in anticipation of our ultimate reality.  We are bound for eternal life by the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ—so if we’re going to concern ourselves with anything it all, our concerns ought to be God’s concerns, too. 

God is concerned about human suffering and need—and God does not sit idly by while his people cry out in fear and agony.  So when we reach out in love and care for our neighbors, we are not wasting our time.  We are bearing witness to the healing grace of God at work in this world.  And not only that, we are doing works of eternal significance.  God is using us to do a good that will last forever.
And remember that God is concerned about your needs—and the needs of those you love.  God does not want you to be burdened with worries about what you will eat or what you will wear or where you will live.  God invites you to leave these cares at the foot of the cross—with the assurance that God knows your every need and every fear.  

God’s plan for your life in this world is that you live in peace; that you share God’s love with your neighbors; and that you experience God’s amazing grace and love as you await the life you have been promised.  The simpler we live, the more of ourselves we can give to God, and devote to doing good thing that will last forever.
So live simply.  Serve your neighbor.   Put your trust in God.  Eternal life awaits you.  Live for the future.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Speak, for Your Servant is Listening" ~ 1 Samuel 3:1-10 ~ 2nd Sunday of Epiphany ~ January 15, 2012

“The Word of the Lord was rare in those days…”

For a believer, this statement is bone-chilling…

It sounds as though God stopped caring about people… 

But in reality, quite the opposite was true…

The Word of the Lord was rare…because people stopped listening.  Many just did whatever was right in their own eyes.  Whatever they felt like… 

The times were so tough and the hardships so great that many simply gave up on God.  People abandoned the faith of their ancestors.  Some even began worshipping other gods.

And the religious leaders of the day certainly weren’t helping the situation any…

There was the priest by the name of Eli.  A mediocre priest at best…  He had two sons by the name of Hophni and Phineas who were also priests—but they were the kind of priests who used their position of power and influence to exploit other people for their own benefit.  Pure scoundrels. 

With these buffoons tasked with proclaiming God’s Word, it was little wonder why the Word of the Lord was rare in those days…

But now more than ever, God was determined to speak and be heard …

So God spoke—not to Eli or his wicked sons, but to a small boy, whose mother had dedicated him for the service of the Lord.

Three times, the boy hears a voice calling to him in the night.  But not once did he think it was the voice of God.  Samuel didn’t even know God existed—even though he was being raised by priests.  Samuel thought it was Eli calling to him—and Eli thought Samuel was just hearing things.  He wasn’t expecting God to speak.  The Word of the Lord was rare in those days.  It wasn’t until the third time Samuel came into his room that Eli finally wised up to the possibility that maybe; just maybe, it was God who was speaking to the boy.  And sure enough—God spoke—and Samuel listened.

Do you believe that God speaks?  Do you believe that God can actually speak to you?

We know by common sense that God does not speak directly to us as God speaks to persons in the Bible, like Samuel.  We don’t have angels who visit us at night who tell us what God is going to do or that God wants us to do this or that. 

So how does God speak to us?  Or does God really speak to us at all?

It’s easy for us to believe that people who hear God speaking are just hearing voices—or they’re just fanatics who belong in the so-called “Holy Roller” churches…

On the other hand, we may, in fact, believe that God does speak to persons—but we doubt that God would speak to someone like us.  God only speaks to people of great faith; someone whose life is all in order; someone whose faith and conduct are above reproach…

We look at ourselves; we consider our dire circumstances; we remember all the bad things we’ve done—and despair just takes over.  We conclude God has nothing to say to us—or even worse, we conclude that faith in God is nothing but a delusion…

But the God we hear about today is one who speaks to be heard.  God will do whatever it takes to be known among people.  God will do whatever it takes to change people’s hearts.  God will keep speaking until we listen…

So the question for us today, is: are we listening? 

God speaks to us is in God’s Holy Word.  There should be no dusty Bibles, either in our church or in our homes.  We must read it; we must hear it proclaimed; we must teach it to each other; we must know it by heart. 

In the bread and the wine God says “the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for you…”

God speaks to us in our prayers.  Prayer is not a one-way conversation.  God answers all prayers.  Even if you’re prayers are not answered in the way you’d hoped, God is still speaking to you…

And God even speaks to us through our neighbors; through our sisters and brothers in the faith; through people of no faith; and sometimes even in people we don’t even like…

The church exists for more than just proclaiming God’s Word.  We’re here to listen together as God speaks to us.  And one of the marks of a strong church is one whose people are in conversation with one another about what they hear God speaking to them.  We help each other to listen and discern that which is spoken to us by God—versus that which is not… 

One of the greatest challenges to our faith is listening to the voice of God when there are so many other voices speaking to us; calling for our attention; trying to influence us to do this—or believe that.  Our schedules are so packed with commitments and obligations that it takes a great deal of effort for us to listen to God.  We have to be deliberate.  We have to be intentional—not just in taking time to listen, but in listening with our family of faith. 

When was the last time you asked someone to pray with you?  When was the last time you shared with someone else what you learned in Scripture?  When was the last time you shared your faith struggles with someone else? 

When was the last time you called someone you know is going through a tough time—and you offered to listen to them—and pray with them? 

If it’s been a while since you’ve done any of these things, make it a point to start today.  Don’t wait any longer to listen as God speaks.  Do it now.

God is speaking.  There’s no debating this fact.  God is speaking words of promise and hope as we face the challenges and endure the hardships that this life brings our way.  God is speaking words of comfort as we grieve our losses and face uncertain tomorrows.  God is speaking words of redemption and forgiveness even as we sin daily and stubbornly refuse to obey God’s will.  God is speaking words of guidance and wisdom as we face our most difficult decisions.  God is calling you to himself—even if you’ve always believed that you’re not good enough to be loved by God.  God is calling you to live a life of purpose, a life through which the love of Jesus Christ can shine through you. 

So let’s be a listening people.  Let’s be a people who come together to hear God speak—and let’s be a people who speak God’s Word of life in a world so full of darkness. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

There's More to God than What We Know Now ~ Acts 19:1-7 ~ Baptism of Our Lord

“Excuse me, sir.  Have you been baptized by the Holy Spirit?”
Several years ago, a total stranger stopped me on the street and asked me that very question.

I told him "yes" (of course I was).  But I really wasn’t sure what to say after that…

This question certainly sounded like a test, to determine if someone’s a bona fide Christian.  It even sounded a little bit like an accusation; like I wasn’t if I didn’t come up with the right answer…

But Paul had in mind to do none of these things when he found a dozen believers in the city of Ephesus... 

Paul asked them if they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized—and they told him that they had never even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.  They were baptized into John's baptism. 

Paul explains that John’s was a baptism of repentance; a baptism that radically re-oriented people’s lives to the coming of Christ. 

But Paul announces to them that Christ had come, and that they could now receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit that God had promised to them through John. 

And as soon as they heard these things, they were baptized again-- this time, in the name of Jesus.  At that moment, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.   Their whole knowledge and experience of God changed at that precise moment.  They were transformed. 

Can you imagine holding a certain set of beliefs for years; even decades—and in one moment, those beliefs change?  That is what is happening here. 

Their faith was built upon a set of beliefs that had been passed down from John the Baptist.  For years, they held these beliefs to be God’s whole truth.  And they had not been deceived.  Their beliefs weren’t wrong. 

But God was still speaking—because God had far more in store for them than what already knew.  They listened to Paul as he proclaimed God’s Word to them.  And through that Word, the Holy Spirit drew them directly to where God wanted them to be—to the waters of baptism.  And as God’s Spirit came upon them, they immediately entered into a deeper experience and a deeper understanding of God. 

That’s what happens in baptism.  We go into the water as sinners, we come out of the water as new people.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is power: to believe and trust in God’s promises, to live according to God’s purposes, and experience the awesome power of God’s love.
But the Spirit’s work is not over and down with in an instant. 

Very easily, we fall into the trap of thinking that there’s nothing more we can know about God—and we don’t expect God to speak something new to us.  We think we know all there is to know from God’s Word.  We think that our relationship with God cannot grow beyond what it is now.  We’re reluctant to try new styles of worship and venture into new ministries, assuming that the way we’ve always done things is the only way that works. 

Yet, wouldn’t it be devastating if there was nothing more to learn about God?  If there were no ways for us, as individuals, or as a congregation, to grow?

God has so much more in store for you than what you know right now. 

Today, God is calling us to be humble: to admit that we don’t know all of God’s truths; to admit we need the Holy Spirit to help us grow.  And we cannot grow unless the Holy Spirit transforms us.
As people baptized into Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit. 

God always speaks to us—and we need to listen.  Any time we open God’s Word, we should expect to challenge what we know and believe to be true.  We should expect God to teach us new things.  We should expect God to change our minds.  We should expect God to change our ways.  We can’t afford to dismiss new teachings that challenge what we already know, dismissing them as false teachings when, they may, in fact, be God’s truth. 

We need to be open to new ideas and new teachings and new styles of worship and new ventures of ministry.  We must be willing to follow the Holy Spirit in new directions if that is what it takes for us to grow in our faith and our discipleship. 

Yet, just because an idea is new does not make it true; nor does it make it God’s will.  We walk a fine line between serving God—and serving ourselves.  So as the Holy Spirit takes us in new directions, we must be in faithful conversations with one another—because we help each discern what is God’s will.  It is only through the wisdom and the courage of our brothers and sisters that we can live and serve God faithfully. 

The growth of our faith and the growth of our ministry is not something that we do on our own.  These things are being done to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What this means is that even today, when you leave this place, you won’t be leaving as the same person you were when you came here earlier this morning.  And we’re not going to be the same church.  We’re being renewed.  We’re being transformed. 

We have received the Holy Spirit in baptism—and we are blessed, because God is constantly at work in our lives, giving us power to believe in Jesus Christ, and power to become more than just what we are right now.  The Christian life is a life of growth—so may our hearts, our minds, our eyes, and our ears be open to learn, to go in new directions, and maybe even to admit that we were wrong.  There is more to God’s grace than what we know now—and the adventure of our Christian faith is knowing that we can experience God and knowing God in new and exciting ways…

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year's Resolution that Works ~ Galatians 4:4-7 ~ Name of Jesus / New Year's Day

I am no fan of New Year’s resolutions...
It's not that I think that it's a bad idea to strive for better health and wellness...

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions because we all know how most of them turn out...

Very often, this year's resolutions are the same ones from last year that we didn't keep-- and that certainly doesn't help with our self-confidence.  Right away, we feel like failures; right away there’s doubt that we can actually succeed and achieve our goals…

It doesn't help that the new year comes only a week after Christmas-- because we always have expectations of what Christmas should be-- and most of the time, it never lives up to those expectations.  We haven't forgotten about those gifts we should have bought; those meals we should've cooked; those cards we should've sent-- and all that junk food we shouldn't have eaten... 

So as we turn the page on a new year, we carry a great deal of guilt...  Guilt is a monster that keeps us in a constant state of shame.  It is what is always reminding us how often we've tried and failed; and always telling us "no, you can't."  Guilt would have us believe that we are destined to go through life being forever imprisoned by our faults and failures. 

But guilt also has a way of pushing us into doing things we were never meant to do.  It turns us into people-pleasers who spend every ounce of our energy in winning other people’s approval-- but we seldom (if ever) take care of ourselves.  We push ourselves to our limits, and beyond-- all the while believing that's the right thing to do...

And when it comes to our relationship with God, guilt is one of the devil's most destructive weapons…

Guilt is nothing but the devil's voice telling us that God looks at us with total disgust.  We're unlovable, unforgiveable, and un-savable because of who we are and what we’ve done...  It would have us believe that we’re God’s enemies—and that there is no place for us in the family of God. 

If the devil cannot succeed in turning you against God, the devil’s next tactic will be to try and make you believe you that God is against you.  The devil’s greatest victory would be for you to believe that you are beyond redemption—and that there is no hope for you, either in this life or the next. 

But nothing could be further from the truth that God’s Word speaks to us today…

Before Christ, we were slaves to sin.  In other words, sin (and the devil) exercised full control over us.  This meant that everything we ever did (even the good deeds) were works of evil.  And sin controlled our future.  We were, in essence, walking dead-- because sin leads only to death. 

But Jesus Christ has changed all of that.  We are no longer slaves to sin.  Our chains are gone.  Christ now rules in our hearts; Christ now rules over our future. 

We were God’s enemies—but through Christ, we are God’s own daughters and sons.  That means that when God looks at you, God does not see you for your faults and failings…  God sees a beloved child; one loved so very much that the precious body and blood of Jesus Christ were not too high a price to pay to make you God’s very own… 

And in God’s eyes, there is no one who is un-savable; there is no one whom God would refuse to adopt as God’s own…  Our adoption is a free gift of grace, given to us by the merits of Christ.  And if that wasn’t enough, we are children with full rights of inheritance.  This means that the fullness of Christ’s eternal inheritance is also hours. 

We don’t have to live in shame; we don’t have to be burdened by guilt.  And we especially do not have to live in terror before our holy and righteous God.  We can come to God as children, calling upon God as ‘Abba, Father,’ just as Jesus did. 

Back when I worked in the bookstore, rule #1 in hiring new employees was this: “past performance indicates future performance.”  In other words, we look to a person’s past to determine what kind of employee they’re going to be.

Well, that rule has no place in the Kingdom of God.  Our past does not determine our future.  Sometimes, we do have to live with the consequences of our misdeeds—but our worst failings do not define our reality.  We are not our mistakes, our failures, our shortcomings…  We are God’s own children—and God does not hold our sins against us. 

What better new year’s resolution could there be than for you to live as a child of God; to call upon him in every time of need, to receive him in Word and sacrament, and be a part of God’s saving work in the world?  Your ‘Abba, Father’ gives you new life today; to free you from your past; to free you from the unrealistic expectations others place on you and you place and yourself.  There is grace amazing and grace abundant for you to live as God’s child, and experience all of God’s strength, healing, and forgiveness.

The past has no power over you—because sin has no power over you.  You belong to God—and 2012, and all the years God gives you, are your opportunity to be loved and treasured by your ‘Abba, Father.’