Sunday, June 30, 2013

True Freedom ~ Galatians 5:1, 13-25 ~ Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

It’s ninth grade American History class, and we’re studying The Civil War…

One of the first things our teacher taught us about the Civil War was that it wasn’t fought over slavery…  It was fought over freedom, he said.

And when the Civil War unit was completed, we had our choice at assignments: we could write a long paper about the meaning of freedom; or, we could memorize the Gettysburg Address, recite it in front of the class, and write a short paper on the meaning of freedom.

I took the option to recite the Address—because I didn’t think it would be any easier to write ten pages about meaning of freedom.  That question’s hard enough to answer even as an adult.

What is freedom?  Is freedom the ability to get everything your heart desires, with no obstacles and interferences?   To get “all you can eat at the buffet of life?”  Or is freedom something else, something altogether different?

As Christians, our understanding of freedom comes from the freedom that is given to us by Jesus Christ: the freedom from slavery to deadly sin. 

Being slaves to sin means that sin controls and determines everything we say and do.  Even when we try and do good, we do evil.  There is nothing WE can do to free ourselves from its control.  What’s worse is that sin will ultimately destroy us, so that we are forever cut off from the God who created us.  What a dreadful state of being this is: living as a slave of death, only to be destroyed by death.

Jesus changed all that, that deadly sin would not have dominating control over you.  Even though there’s nothing we ever did to deserve it, Jesus redeemed you. 

He took your place, to die the death you deserved—and by rising from the dead, he broke the chains of deadly sin for good.  Now, you are bound to God; and you will live forever because of what Jesus does for you.  That is freedom—you are a freed slave.  There’s nothing that you must do; no demands you must satisfy to secure eternal life for yourself.  It’s all given to you as a gift.  You’re a child of God now.

With this good news comes, though, a stern warning: do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…  That’s the nature of freedom: we can choose.  The imprisonment to sin is gone, but the opportunity to sin remains—and how else does sin manifest itself but as the opportunity for self-indulgence?

And what else is self-indulgence, but doing everything in your power to satisfy all your heart’s desires; getting all you can eat at the buffet of life?

One-by-one, Paul lists the indulgences through which deadly sin manifests itself in us.  I’ll spare you reading them all, but we indulge in these because doing so makes us feel good.  We can gratify ourselves in the moment; have fun; “enjoy life,” look good before others, and feel good about ourselves.  But what do you think would happen if every person exercised “freedom” to have it all, and be it all?  Can you imagine what life would be like, if it was “every person for themselves?”

We can’t all have it all…  The more we try, the worse life will become for everyone—and true freedom will elude us…

And on this week that we celebrate our nation’s independence; our FREEDOM; we as Americans and Christians need to remember that freedom is a gift we receive from God that we, in turn, share with each other. 

Our freedom from sin’s deadly control is a gift from God, made possible only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ…

Our freedom as Americans is a gift from God, made possible only by those who gave of themselves on our behalf, and those who still do…  In other words, made possible by those who serve

And if this nation is to have any kind of a future; if our Christian faith is to have any kind of a future, it is up to us to exercise our freedom not merely for our own sake, but for others.

We must become as slaves to one another in love.  This is ultimately what it means to live as a child of God: that we, who have been made free by grace would, in turn, use our freedom to CHOOSE to live as slaves to our neighbors.  We don’t need to be burdened by our own self-interest, because God has our needs at heart.  We can become living signs of the grace given to us by God in the grace we show towards others.  We use our freedom to give of ourselves for our neighbor’s sake. 

And how do we do this but in love, patience, generosity, gentleness, self-control…?

In these discouraging times, it is not beyond us to build communities of peace and healing.  For there are so many who know no sense of freedom at all, because they are imprisoned by sickness and disease; by poverty and need; by loneliness and isolation; by hopelessness and unbelief.  But we who have been made free have the power to set others free.  What better way to enjoy our gift of freedom than to set others free? 

Living as a slave to our neighbors may sound so daunting as to be almost repulsive, but why should it be?  Christ gave his life to free you from sin.  Your faithful God has your best needs at heart.  And Jesus commands us to walk in love because this is how we discover true joy and meaning in life, because a good life is not measured in how much you get, but by what you give.  God made you beautiful to be beautiful to others.  God made you free to set others free.  If we delight to be as slaves to one another, we shall all, in turn, delight in God’s gift of life; to overcome all our problems, to heal, and to live in joy.  By grace we are saved; by grace we shall live.  This is true freedom.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fear or Faith? ~ Luke 8:26-39 ~ Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

On Route 8, north of Butler, there’s a place called Ghostriders…

And during my second year of college, my friends successfully convinced me to go there with them.

For this city boy, going to Ghostriders was like going the moon—because Ghostriders was about two things totally unfamiliar to me: country music, and dancing—specifically, country line dancing. 

When I arrived, I found myself surrounded by a sea of cowboy hats, pickup trucks, and a mechanical bull.  My friend puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, “Jim, you’re a long way from home…  Stick with me.”

So me and my two left feet went out on the dance floor—and we laughed like we’ve never laughed before.  It was a great time—but I’ll never forget what it felt like, being that far out of my comfort zone…

This is what Jesus’ disciples were feeling.  Just before our Gospel story begins, Jesus gathered them all in a boat to sail across the sea of Galilee.  That night, a storm nearly killed them—a frightful prelude of what awaited them on land…

Immediately, they encounter a man possessed by demons.  Did you hear the text describes him?  This could be the most gruesome incident in all of Luke, save the passion narrative.

He wears no clothes, he lives in tombs, and his voice is not his own.  His name is not his own.  His humanity has been usurped by a legion of 6,000 demons.  The townsfolk have tried to chain him up—but the demons are so strong that he breaks the chains.

Just think of that experience: Jesus and disciples, face-to-face with pure evil.  Face to faith with the power of death in the act of destruction, of a human being…

Have you ever been face-to-face with death?  Many of us have: we’ve watched death steal life away from people who are precious to us.  But that’s not the only way we see death…  We see it in illness and ailments of the mind and body.  We see it in addictions; we see it in people who abuse and who commit acts of violence and cruelty. 

Many of us have indeed experienced the power of death firsthand—and know all too well the helplessness of when we cannot free ourselves from its grip…

Today’s Scripture testifies to what we know all too well: that there are evil, cosmic forces at war against God’s people and the world God created.  And yet—they are no match for Jesus Christ.  God is doing something about death; God is doing something about evil; God is doing something about suffering—and we as God’s people must live our lives in light of this reality; rather than living in fear and trembling at what terrible things come to pass.  We must live by faith—not by fear.  This is not as easy as you’d think.

Sometimes we deny that evil is real.  “Things aren’t as bad as they seem,” we’ll say to ourselves.  Other times, we simply ignore evil—especially if it doesn’t directly impact our lives.  Out of sight, out of mind. 

Sometimes, we run away from it.  Daily life comes to exist only within the bounds created by our fears.  For a disciple, this means that we’ll do anything Jesus commands us to do as long as we can stay in our comfort zone.  The minute Jesus asks us do to something that scares or intimidates us, our answer is “no, Lord.  I can’t.”

And living by fear is, in essence, surrendering to fear.  Instead of acting in faith on the promises of God, we let the darkness overtake us.  How tragic it is for fear to rule the life of a Christian—fear makes death seem so large, and God so small…  How tragic that is that the fear of evil would define our lives, in terms of how we live and what we do.

But Jesus has come down from heaven to be with you and all who suffer evil, because God loves you too much to allow you or anyone else to be destroyed.  Jesus is more powerful than evil.  Therefore, we must trust in this promise and act accordingly.  We live by faith, and not by fear…  So what does that mean?

1.       It means that we name the evils before God (and maybe, even before the Body of Christ).  What are our hurts?  What injustices do people suffer?  Who is suffering?  How are they suffering?

2.       Then, we remember that Jesus is more powerful than evil; that he is more powerful than death. 

3.       We remember that we ourselves are set free from the deadly grip of evil.  This means that we’re not our afflictions.  We’re not our diseases.  We’re not those terrible mistakes we’ve made in the past.  We’re children of God.  We’re disciples—and disciples are created to shine the stars for Jesus, to those who are in darkness.  This means that we love.  We forgive.  We serve.  And we testify to true and certain hope.  Jesus never asks us to do anything impossible—but to do what we can, out of what God has given us, one person at a time..

We feed the hungry.  We visit the lonely.  We share one of our two garments with the one who has none.  We join our voices to those whose voices are silenced, in their cries for justice.  We invite un-churched people to come to worship with us; we tell parents of un-churched children about our church’s youth ministries.  We testify to God’s goodness before the non-believer. 

Far too many Christians never live the life of discipleship because they’re afraid—afraid of rejection; afraid of failure; afraid of making mistakes; afraid of evil.  We fear the future, thinking that is going to win in the end.  How tragic it is that this is how we live, far too often.  It’s time for us to stop living in fear—and participate in the life-giving power of God.

And yes, this world has changed—and the changes are not good.  But we must be willing to change, leave our fears and comfort zones behind, to live in the light of Jesus rather than the dark of fear.  We can do this—and we can see with our eyes that God’s promises are not merely some well-meaning promises, but powerful realities that are winning the victory over evil, every single day.

For if we live by faith, we will see God’s victory.  We will see it day in and day out, until the day comes when death will be no more.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Having It All ~ 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10; 12:13-15 ~ Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

What do you think of when you hear the name:

Lance Armstrong.  O.J. Simpson.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Amanda Bynes.  Mel Gibson.

Do you know them as sports heroes?  Respected government leaders?  Entertainers?

Or do you know them for their dramatic falls from grace?

Thanks largely in part to 24-hour cable news, reality television, and our culture’s general obsession with celebrities, we watch their stars fall. 

Today, God’s Word brings us a 3,000-year-old story of King David—and his fall from grace. 

The drama begins with David sitting on top of the world.  He’s the most powerful king on earth, such that no army can defeat him.  He has all the wealth, power, and prestige he could ever want.  Add to that, King David was “a man after God’s own heart,” such that God blessed and prospered him in everything he did.  But just when his star was at its highest, his fall from grace begins…

Israel is at war with one of its neighbors, but David decides to give himself a vacation instead of going away with his soldiers.  So he’s at home in his palace—and his idle hands prove to be the devil’s playground…  He sees a woman by the name of Bathsheba from his palace window—a married woman whose husband is off fighting on David’s behalf.  He sends his men to get her…the next thing he knows, she’s pregnant with his child.  Desperate to save face, David goes into “damage-control mode.”  He doesn’t want anyone to find out that he’s the father of an illegitimate child.  So David schemes to have Bathsheba’s husband sent to the front lines of battle, where he dies—this way, he can’t deny that the child born to his wife is not his own. 

So David goes from being a man after God’s own heart—to an adulterer—and then a murderer.  And this tragic story has much to teach us about the insatiable power of sin that lives inside of all of us…

David was a man who was used to getting whatever he wanted.  So when David looked upon Bathsheba, he allowed himself to be so consumed by his desire that he didn’t see the error of his own ways.  Did you notice how he reacted to the parable Nathan spoke to him?  When someone else committed the same crime he did, David knew it was wrong.  But today, we learn, that when our desires consume us, we lose our sense of right and wrong—because all that is right is getting what we want, and as much as we want, as quickly as possible…  It is our desires that give birth to sin. 

We may not be kings, queens, sports heroes, or celebrities—but our hearts are full of desires.  Money is probably the first thing that comes to mind—we desire it believing that we can buy happiness and security.  But there are so many other desires in our hearts: for attention or the admiration of others; the desire for others’ approval…  There’s the desire to control other people and control situations so that everything goes our way…  There’s the rebellious desire to live by no one else’s rules but our own.  Whatever the case, the desires blind us to the reality of our own evil.  We exploit the situations, we exploit other people—for our own benefit.  We sin.  We fall from grace.

David’s fall from grace serves as a stern warning to all of us that we will reap what we sow.  All sin has consequences.  But God uses those consequences to discipline us—but God’s discipline is never meted out to make us suffer.  God’s discipline is for our redemption.  God’s discipline breaks us free from sin’s deadly hold.

God is far and away more forgiving than we typically are toward those of fame and power who fall from grace.  The story of David’s fall from grace teaches us how forgiving God really is…

Today, we must acknowledge that sinful desires live in our hearts—for it is from the desires that we sin.  The only answer to the deadly power of sin is that we re-direct all of our desires towards God.  This is the essence of repentance.  It’s a dramatic shift in our thinking and our doing.  It’s a dramatic shift in our understanding of what it means to “have it all.” 

It’s not about always getting your way, amassing unfathomable riches, and having everyone love you and admire you.  You “have it all” (so to speak) when you believe, by faith, that you are unconditionally loved and forgiven by the creator of the world, who holds all things in hand.  You have it all when you can bring all your desires and all your needs and all your hearts before the throne of God, unafraid and unashamed.  You have it all when you believe and trust that God will always care for you, never to leave you or forsake you.

You have it all when you cast your life into the nail-scarred hands of the One who gave his all for you, so that you can live forever as a beloved child of God.

You have it all when God is the object of your desire—because this is one desire that shall be met.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When Jesus Comes to Town ~ Luke 7:11-17 ~ Third Sunday after Pentecost

Earlier this week, an atheists’ group announced that they will be erecting a “monument to atheism” in front of a Florida courthouse—in response to a Ten Commandments’ monument erected not long ago.

The monument will display secularist quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin.  It will even quote the Bible: specifically the punishments prescribed for breaking certain commandments—on two stone tablets, no less…

Now I couldn’t help but feel a sense of outrage that someone would mock the fundamental beliefs of three of the world’s major religions—but my feelings quickly turned to grief and sadness that someone would go to the trouble and the expense to erect a monument to unbelief

How tragic it is for someone to believe that there is no life after death…  That life, in fact, may have no real purpose other than the purpose we attempt to give it…  That sorrow and evil may in fact have the last word…  How tragic to believe that we are all alone, with no higher power to reach out to for strength and healing…

Where would we really be without Jesus?

This is a good question for us to consider as we read about an unnamed widow from the town of Nain, who is in the midst of what must be the worst day of her life.  Already, she has lost her husband—and losing a husband in those days meant more than just losing a life partner…  She lost her only real means of keeping a roof over her head, food on her place, and clothes on her back…

And if that wasn’t awful enough, she’s now lost her son.  There’s no one left in the family to take care of her.  Not to mention that there is no loss more painful than the loss of a child…

In those days, people thought they could speak for God.  For a woman to lose both her husband and her child, people would assume that she’s being cursed by God.   She must’ve been some awful person for God to permit such a thing to happen…

She is all alone, in just about every sense of the word.  Her only hope of survival is that her kin and community will look after and care for her…

It’s then that Jesus enters the town of Nain, and immediately he goes straight towards the grieving widow.  We know what happens next…  And yet there’s more to this story than just the miracle…  Jesus’ presence as well as his act were signs that God has taken personal concern with the widow—and the people of her community.  When any child of God suffers need or want, Jesus will always be there—and he will always have the last word.

That’s what happened when Jesus came to Nain…  Well, today, Jesus has come to Leechburg—and he isn’t just passing through…

He’s here in this place, receiving our prayers and giving us his body and blood.  But he’s outside our doors, with those who need him most.  He is ministering the healing and life-giving mercies of God, just as he did for the widow and her son that day in Nain.  He’s comforting, he’s strengthening, he’s restoring—and his work will not be done until every woman, man, and child knows him as Lord and Savior. 

Yet no one will know Jesus, unless we take the initiative, go out and meet our neighbors; get our hands dirty, and do whatever is in our ability to care for them according to their needs.  We are the signs of Jesus’ presence in the world.

How quick we are to we look upon the pain of our neighbors and the plight of our community, and throw up our hands in surrender, fully believing that there’s nothing we can do to make a difference—because God doesn’t seem to be doing anything…  Why should we surrender evils and the injustices and the hurts that ravage people’s lives when Jesus is in town, on the ground, with us and with our neighbors? 

No Christian should go through their week, tossed about by stress and the pressures of daily life when Jesus gives us the gift of our church to be built up on faith and strength. 

None of our neighbors should be alone when we as the Body of Christ can befriend them…

No one should suffer want when we have gifts to care for them…

No one should suffer unbelief when we can bear witness to the presence of our Savior, on the ground, with us even in the messes of life…

Jesus has come to Leechburg.  And West Leechburg, Hyde Park, Vandergrift, and Apollo, Lower Burrell and New Kensington, Saltsburg and Clarksburg, and all the places we call home.  And he’s present in your homes, walking with you in daily life.  Our lives are Jesus’ mission field.  Our communities are Jesus’ dwelling place…

Today, you are invited to show this community, this world—that God has indeed come to the help of his people.  You can start right now…

Think of someone—a friend or a family member, a neighbor or co-worker; someone who’s going through a tough time, like the widow at Nain…  Come forward today and light a candle for that person.  Whisper their name in prayer.  And then go and care for that person.  You don’t have to do anything heroic; just visit them; listen to them; be with them…  Do whatever you can do to help them bear their burden…

Light a candle for yourself if you are at the end of your ropes; broken and weary and not sure how you’re even going to make it through the week…

Do this because Jesus is here to care for you.  With a little faith and hope, he’ll do great things.  People will glorify God because of you.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Worthy of You ~ Luke 7:1-10 ~ Second Sunday after Pentecost

It’s fourth grade gym class.  Today is dodge-ball day…

The class is lined up before two “captains” the teacher has selected—and one-by-one, the captains begin selecting their teammates.  Surprise, surprise, the most popular—and athletic—students are picked first.

But still, you’re standing in the first line, waiting to be selected—all the while, the first picks begin eyeing you up as the first target for their volleys.  You realize that whatever team you end up on, you won’t be there for long.  You’ll be back on the sidelines until game-over…

One of the most unfortunate facts of life is that we will all find ourselves “on the outs,” even if we were a first-pick in fourth grade gym class.  As we go through life, we’ll be presented with so many desirable opportunities: for a spouse or a friendship, for a dream job, for a membership in an exclusive club.  But these opportunities won’t be open to just anyone.  You must be deemed worthy by those on the inside.

And there’s nothing that hurts quite like rejection—to be judged unworthy

Today in our Gospel, we hear the story about a man who was probably un-familiar that feeling—a Roman centurion who commanded 100 soldiers.  To hold such a position was to be among the elite of the Roman world.  Yet in Jesus’ world, centurions and their Roman counterparts were typically despised, because they represented the evil empire that had invaded their God-given land.  But this centurion was different: he was a devout follower of Judaism—and he even provided substantial financial support for the synagogue.

But still, he’s a man who’s used to getting his way…  So when his slave falls ill—and he learns that Jesus of Nazareth is in town, he immediately summons some of the elders to go and fetch Jesus for him.  To the elders, there couldn’t be a man more worthy of Jesus’ attention than the centurion.  They make this fact crystal clear to Jesus when they get to him. 

But it is at this point that something happens; perhaps a change of heart—we really don’t know.  But the centurion sends some friends to Jesus, with these words:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 

All of the sudden, this man who was “worthy” of status, obedience, and respect, comes to realize that his supposed “worthiness” doesn’t really mean anything to Jesus.  And he’s not beating himself up; he’s just realizing the truth: Jesus is a man under authority—just like the centurion.  Jesus wasn’t put on earth to do the centurion’s bidding, no matter how worthy he might’ve been. 

There was only one thing left to do—to bring word of his need before Jesus, and then trust Jesus to meet the need, in whatever way Jesus would do.

Think about it—Jesus and the centurion never meet—but Jesus commends his faith above all in Israel—and why?  What can we learn from this story?

1.       When it comes to Jesus, we must throw all notions of our worthiness or unworthiness out the window.  They mean nothing to Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t relate to people according to how worthy or how deserving they are.  Jesus relates to us according to our need.  This means that we have only to present our need to Jesus.  Yet it takes tremendous faith do this…

2.       When it comes to our needs, we usually have in mind the way in which we would prefer Jesus to meet them.  Our way, right away…  But we have to trust Jesus, like the centurion, to do what he will—and believe that he will respond.  Jesus may not always give us what we want (or when we want it), but he will always take care of us.  No question.

3.       Finally, our relationship to Jesus must be one of total submission.  Just because we believe in Jesus does make him bound to our will.  Living as a child of God means that we are bound to Jesus’ will.  We’ve thrown out the question of whether or not we’re worthy of Jesus.  The question now is: is Jesus worthy of our complete and total submission?   His body and blood he gives for you.  Is he worthy of you, that you would obey him?  Is he worthy of you, that you would count him your life’s greatest treasure?  Is he worthy of you, that you would trust him to do what is best for you, in his own time?  Is he worthy of you, that you would share his love with family, friends, strangers, and even people you don’t like?

Did you notice how this Gospel ends?  Not only does Jesus never meet the centurion, Jesus never even speaks any word to bring about the slave’s healing.  But still, the slave is healed that very day. 

Therein lies the challenge: to believe that Jesus is gracious and merciful; more powerful than our greatest needs and deepest hurts; more faithful to us than we can ever be to him.  To believe that Jesus is personally with us and will take care of us…  We do not presume to dictate to Jesus what he will do or how he’ll do it; we just wait in faith and hope.  That is what you are invited to do today: bring whatever needs or hurts you have, leave them up here at the cross, then live your life in trust and obedience

Do this, and you’ll see: Jesus is faithful.  Your needs he will provide.  You will taste and see the goodness of God.  Believe, trust, obey, and wait…  for you will not be forgotten.