Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Homecoming ~ John 12:20-32 ~ Fifth Sunday in Lent

Three years ago, I was in Washington, D.C., at the office of my congressman.
As part of a seminary course assignment, I was there to lobby him to support legislation on an issue of my choice. 

Right before we went off to our appointments, we were warned how things work in Washington...  They said, "unless your name is Oprah or Larry King, you won't be seeing your congressman in person."

This turned out to be the case during my visit.  I was led into an office and met with a well-dressed male aide in his mid-twenties who wrote down my concerns on a yellow legal pad.

And this didn't sit too well with one of the congressman's other constituents who happened to be there that day. 

"I voted for him, I pay his salary, and you're telling me that I can't see him for five minutes?"

He went on to say that he'd been unemployed for twenty-seven months-- and all he wanted was for five minutes to tell the congressman his story and ask him to do something to bring new jobs to Western Pennsylvania. 

This would have been enough to give him some hope.

But that's not how things work in Washington...

And it makes me wonder what kind of response the Greeks were expecting when they approached Philip and said "we wish to see Jesus..."

They would have very good reason to expect the very same kind of "gate-keeping" that I experienced on Capitol Hill...  

They were Greeks-- and in the eyes of Jews like Jesus' disciples, they were Gentiles.  They were outsiders-- and it would have been socially unacceptable for them even to expect a face-to-face meeting with the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. 

And Philip goes right along with the social norms...  Listen to all the "gate-keeping" the disciples do-- Philip goes to Andrew, and then the two of them finally go and tell Jesus. 

Unfortunately, the story cuts off there, and we don't find out whether or not these Greeks get to see Jesus. 

But Jesus' words give us good reason to believe that they would get what they asked for... 

Jesus says, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself." 

These words mark a major turning point in John's Gospel.  From here on, there can be no mistaking that Jesus' saving work will not be limited to Jews.  Jesus will be the savior of the insiders and the outsiders... 

God's will is for all people to see Jesus and be saved.  And the way God intends for Jesus to be seen by the world is in the outpouring of his self-giving love upon the cross.

So here in Leechburg, what would an un-churched person do if she or he wished to see Jesus?

The easy answer would be that they would go to any one of the fifteen churches here in Leechburg.  And it's fairly certain that they would be welcomed warmly in whichever congregation they visit. 

But what a challenge it is to step into a church for the first time-- especially if you've never been to a church before...  We all have our own unique ways of worshipping; there's unfamiliar customs and traditions-- and unless someone invited you, you'll be a stranger in a sea of unfamiliar faces. 

Seeing Jesus can be a quite formidable for someone on the outside of the church community...

So let's hear again what Jesus says after learning of the Greeks who wanted to see him:

Jesus does not say "anyone who wants to come to me can come to me.  I won’t turn anyone away..."

He says "I will draw all people to myself." 

We can look at Jesus' ministry as a whole and see how true he was to his word...  Jesus did not stay in one place, waiting for people to come to him.  Jesus was constantly on the move-- and his most powerful moments of ministry occurred in the realm of everyday life.  Just in the Gospel of John, people came to faith in Jesus at a wedding, by a well, on city streets, at the seaside, and in people's homes.  These people didn't ask to see Jesus-- but they saw him anyway, because Jesus met them wherever they were, so as to draw them to himself.  And when they saw Jesus and experienced his compassion and his love, they then followed him. 

Trying to see Jesus was not like trying to see a congressman...  Jesus went out to meet people in their time of greatest need. 

And as the Body of Christ, we must understand our mission in the very same way. 

We don’t have lines of people waiting at our front doors wanting to see Jesus—and while it would be spectacular if that were the case, it’s not a disaster that it’s not. 

Our mission is to join Jesus in his work of drawing all people to himself—and much of this work is done outside of these walls.  As we look to the future, we should be in prayerful conversation about questions, such as:
·         Who are the un-churched people in our community—and what are their needs? 
·         What gifts and talents do we have in our congregation to meet their needs? 
·         How can we touch their lives with the love of Christ?

And while we consider these big-picture questions about our congregation’s mission, let’s remember that our everyday lives are sacred spaces for people to see love of Jesus Christ in us.  The people in your life, whether they are friends, co-workers, neighbors, or even strangers—are people loved by Jesus Christ.  Your days are full of opportunities for holy conversations.

However it is we minister the love of Jesus Christ, the experience of coming to this church for the first time should be more than just receiving a warm welcome.  It should be a homecoming.  Having seen Jesus in us, it is coming home to receive him in water Word, bread and wine.  It’s coming home to their place in God’s family.  It’s coming come to a community of people who care for them—and will be there for them when they’re in need.  It’s coming home to wait with hope for his coming again into the world.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

When You Believe ~ John 3:14-21 ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent

A short time after we were married, Elizabeth and I made up a word for all the TV shows and movies I like to watch—but she doesn’t.

We call it “men-tertainment”
One of my all-time favorites is Myth-Busters—a show that puts urban legends to the test to find out whether or not they’re true.  This past Tuesday, the cast was out to find out why some people can walk barefoot across hot coals—and not get burned.

So the Myth-busters do a little scientific research—and they learn that it is possible to do this safely.  So three of them line up to put their findings to the test—and sure enough, they don’t get burned.
Then they ask a fourth Myth-buster to do the very same—but he wasn’t part of the research.  He didn’t know the science.  But after he watches the others walk across the hot coals safely, he decides to try it for himself.

And half-way across, he panics.  He runs toward the cool grass—and he gets burned. 
The first three cast members believed they could walk across the hot coals safely.  Because of that, they walked across calmly and gently on the tops of the hot coals, where the heat was far less intense.  But the other guy believed he was going to burn his feet—and that’s why he ran.  By running, forces his feet deeper into the hot coals, where the heat is more intense. 

This whole incident demonstrates to the power of our beliefs in influencing what we do—and how we react to things. 
Beliefs are not like nickels and dimes that we carry in our pockets.  Our beliefs influence the way in which we live our lives—and no beliefs are more influential to what we say and do than our beliefs about God.

If you don’t believe in God, it’s likely that you’ll not believe in life after death.  And you will surely live your life differently if you believe that this life is all there is…
But as Christians, we do believe in God; we do believe in life after death.  And we look to God for the answer to question, “what happens when we die?” 

Sure enough, Jesus Christ is that answer.  He is God’s own self-revelation.  We open the Scriptures to know Jesus Christ; his promises to us, and his will for our lives.
John 3:16 has been described by many as “the Bible in Miniature”—and that is a very appropriate way to describe it.  I told the youth in our confirmation class that is the most important passage of Scripture to know.  It summarizes all of God’s truth in one sentence.   It is God’s answer to the problem of sin—and the problem of mortality—that afflict our human existence.

As we revisit this familiar passage, one important we must remember is that this is not God’s answer to the question “what must we do in order to be saved?”  Jesus himself telling us what God does for us so that we shall be saved. 
God so loved the God-hating world so as not to condemn it.  Out of love for us, God gave his son to be lifted up upon the cross to suffer the condemnation we deserved, so that we might have eternal life. 

In the cross, we see just how great a love God has for us and for the world.  In Jesus’ self-giving act upon the cross, God gives us the gifts of the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. 
We are saved by what Jesus does for us.

But the one element that is so crucial in the midst of all these promises is that of believing.  Our act of believing does not save us—but if we don’t believe, God cannot draw us to Christ, nor can we be embraced by God’s love.  Believing is the means through which God’s self-giving love takes root in our lives.  When we believe, we’re drawn into the light of Christ—and we are transformed.  We have the peace of knowing that we’re forgiven; we have the comfort in knowing that we’ll be with Jesus when we die; and we have the confidence in knowing that Christ is with us.  And believing that God so loved the whole world, we love our neighbors as Jesus loves them. 
We all know from life experience that believing in God can so often be so difficult as to be impossible.  Yet we cannot believe in God by our own power or strength.  We’re not capable of just believing in God.  The good news is that God helps us to believe. 

So when we find ourselves doubting; when our guilt becomes so enormous that we feel unlovable by God, we must flee to the light of Jesus Christ in the ways that it shines for us. 
We return again to this familiar passage of Scripture, to hear again of God’s great love and promise to the world.  The light of Christ shines whenever we carry our sorrows and worries to Christ in prayer.  The light of Christ shines here in our church, in the songs of hope and praise we sing, and in the company we share.  And the light of Christ shines in the love that we show for each other. 

Our journey to the cross with Jesus Christ during this season of Lent is one of the most important ways in which we can immerse ourselves in his love as life continues to present us with so much fear and heartache.   It is in the tragedy of the cross that we see the extent of God’s great love for us—and beyond that cross in the empty tomb we see the hope that awaits us all beyond the grace.  Our dark world needs so desperately the light of Christ—and thanks be to God, Christ is here to shine it upon us.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

There's Gonna Be Some Changes Made ~ John 2:13-22 ~ Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's really difficult to picture the scene in our minds...
The gentle and kind-hearted Jesus… is rampaging in the temple.  With a whip of cords, he drives out the money changers and the animals they were selling.  He overturns their tables and scatters their coins all over the floor...

Can you picture him acting in this way-- during Passover, the holiest festival in Judaism?  Can you picture the faithful Jews who must have been terrified by what he was doing? 

It is difficult to imagine Jesus ever so angry; so aggressive, and even so violent...

But there are reasons why he did what he did...  This was not wanton destruction and mayhem.  This was an act of God.

The Temple was supposed to be a place where people encountered the living God. 

But Jesus does not see worship; he doesn’t see prayer; he doesn’t see God’s people serving the needy and outcast.  Jesus sees only commerce. 

The temple, the sacrificial system, and even the practice of changing pagan money containing images were all instituted at God’s command.  But God was doing something new—and the Temple and its sacrificial system were no longer serving God’s purposes.  The temple wasn’t bringing people closer to God.  If anything, it was keeping God at a distance. 

So it had to go.

God was raising up a new temple—one that people will destroy; and yet, will be raised up after three days.  No longer would God’s people have to go to the temple to encounter God—for with Christ, the new temple, God’s people will worship God through the Holy Spirit.  There will be no more need for sacrifices—because Jesus will be the perfect sacrifice that will atone for human sin.  Jews and Gentiles alike will worship God as one Body; there will be no exclusions of persons due to race or gender or social status or cleanness versus uncleanness… 

So having heard how Jesus reacted to what he saw in the temple, what would Jesus have to say about our church? 

It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that there is much that would delight Jesus. 

God is working in amazing ways through our many ministries and through each of you.  The love of Christ is transforming the lives of people in this congregation, throughout the Kiski Valley, and around the world. 

And it’s not wrong for us to celebrate all that God is doing.  We should celebrate—and we need to be more open in sharing with one another the ways in which we are meeting Jesus Christ in this church. 

But in what ways would Jesus challenge us to change? 

We would not have to concern ourselves with change if the world we live in never changed.  But it does change.  The Kiski Valley has changed.  People’s spiritual needs and longings have changed.  And therefore, our ministry of Christ must also change.  We must be prepared to worship, to proclaim, to educate, and to reach out in ways we’ve never done before.  We may even have to let go of certain beloved traditions and treasures of our past if we are to faithfully follow Jesus Christ. 

And it is not easy for us to know the specific ways that Jesus is calling us to change.  But we know our mission.  We are called to be the loving arms of Christ, reaching out to gather the least and the lost into his presence.  The things that need to change are the things that stand in the way of that purpose. 

What things might we be holding onto too tightly, at the expense of holding onto Christ?

If Jesus walked in here today, I doubt he would tell us that we must throw everything out and start over fresh.  I doubt that he would command us to change and become like the churches that are thriving right now.

He, too, would celebrate the amazing things in the life of this community.  We are blessed with gifts and talents and passions through which we are shining the light of Christ into the world.  So as we look to tomorrow, these gifts are the foundation upon which we will build our future—by God’s help. 

The challenges are great—both within this congregation and in our context.  We have a large and aging building that is in need of extensive and expensive repairs.  Our church body has suffered heart-wrenching losses of faithful co-workers in the life of our ministry.  These are tough economic times in the Kiski Valley, and the communities are not growing. 

But we have a mission—and we have Jesus Christ; we have each other; and our cup of God’s blessings overflows.  We have all we need to serve Jesus Christ. 

So will we allow Jesus to come into our church and shake things up a little bit?  Will we allow him to challenge us to take risks?  Will we allow him to lead us out of our comfort zone—and be lifted by his grace to do his will?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Have it God's Way ~ Mark 8:31-38 ~ Second Sunday in Lent

In the 1970's, Burger King rocked the fast food hamburger universe by introducing its famous tagline Have it Your Way.
It used to be that your fast food hamburger was prepared en masse—and if you didn't want mayonnaise on it, your only option was to scrape it off before you ate it. 

But Burger King changed the game.  Now, you can have your burger prepared any way you want it-- and they'll make it special, just for you.

One could say that we live in a Have it Your Way kind of world. 

Just consider how many choices you have for things like breakfast cereals or spaghetti sauce.  Our televisions have hundreds of channels.  There are communication technologies that allow people to talk to anyone in the world, watch any move, hear any song, at any time, in any place.

And sadly, the “Have it Your Way” philosophy has made its way into mainstream Christianity.  There are no shortage of voices out there who will tell you, "have faith, be a good person, and God will bless you.  You won't get sick; you won't suffer.  God will prosper you."

We love to have it our way—because it’s power.  It’s the power to satisfy our needs and wants. 

And we love the idea of having a God who operates on our own terms; one who blesses us and prospers us for doing good; who punishes us for doing bad…  We want a God who works in ways we understand.

This was exactly what Peter had in mind when he learned that Jesus was the Messiah.  And he was not alone in this…  For generations, Jerusalem had been held captive under oppressive Roman rule, and the religious system of the day was controlled by men who were just as ruthless. 

Peter (and most of the people in Israel) were hoping for a Messiah who would rise up to power; who would kick the Romans out of Jerusalem, reclaim the Jewish religion, and rule over the land of Israel—so God's people could live in peace and prosperity. 

So Peter was absolutely shocked when Jesus told him that he "must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed."  Messiahs weren't supposed to die a criminal's death.

And the news was bad for Peter personally: since he was a disciple of Jesus, his ultimate fate could very well be the same as his Messiah. 

To say that Peter was disappointed would be an understatement.  And he had a right to be.  This was a huge letdown.  This was terrifying news.  Peter’s “way” for the redemption of God’s people was not sinful or evil.  Every human heart longs for peace and health and well-being.  And we will always be disappointed—or even angry, when we bring these most basic requests before God in prayer—and our prayers are unanswered…

And it is really intimidating to hear Jesus harsh words after Peter voices his disappointment.  He says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  To us, it almost sounds as though it’s wrong for us to be disappointed with God. 

Yes, Peter has set his mind on human things—but that’s because he doesn’t understand God’s ways.  He does not understand how Jesus could die on the cross—or why…  He does not understand that God’s plan for the redemption would be accomplished not through an act of power, but in weakness, suffering, and humiliation…  He does not understand that God’s victory will be won not in military conquest, but in the raising of Christ from the dead.

And who, among us, can ever say that we have always understood God’s ways?

We all suffer losses and pains; we all suffer evil and we feel shame and guilt for all the bad things we’ve done—and the one question that never goes away is: “why, God?”

We wonder if God is punishing us for something done wrong… 

We wonder what God is trying to teach us, or what good could possibly come out of this terrible situation? 

And most of the time, we don’t know the answers…  We struggle just to believe that God is with us…  Our dire circumstances reinforce our doubts, and we find ourselves wondering if there’s any God left to believe in…

So when things fall apart, are we just supposed to put on a happy face, and just accept things as they are as God’s will?  Should we just try and set our minds on divine things, lest we, too, receive such a harsh rebuke from Jesus? 

It is disappointing that we can’t have it our way when it comes to the life we live.  Setting our mind on divine things requires us to let go of our need to be in control of our lives.  The faith that God requires is one that says, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

That kind of faith, however, does not come easy.  We need God’s help to believe.  And God’s help is not a reward for accepting that which is unacceptable; nor is God’s help the reward for helping ourselves. 

God meets us in our questions.  God meets us in those times of anguish and doubt.  Jesus himself cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And God will hear our cries just the same.  Our disappointments, our frustrations, our doubts, and our brokenness: these we can bring before God as offerings which God will receive with all gentleness and compassion.  And in turn, God will give you the faith to hold on.

In the times and places of weakness, brokenness, and defeat, Christ is present with us.  This is where God’s redemption happens.  This is where Jesus saves us; where everlasting life becomes a reality.

Life will bring us many disappointments.  We can never know the mind of God so as to understand exactly what God is doing or why in our times of despair.  But it is in these seasons of loss where new life in God springs into being. 

We will not always get what we want—but God can work even in the midst of our deepest sorrows to give us the life we desperately need.  Christ’s cross and resurrection are signs of the promise that, come what may, God’s way is, ultimately, the way it shall be. 

And we can’t make it to eternal life any other way—but God’s way.  But thanks be to God that God does whatever it takes to make sure we get there.